Saturday, 29 March 2014

Death Disco

Back in the dying embers of my teenage years, which coincided almost to the day with the sun setting on the 1970s I was going through big personal ch-ch-ch-changes. From the early years of my senior education at what was then Wellingborough Grammar School, having got into the A stream, for some reason I still cannot explain I gravitated towards the kids who were sons of well-to-do middle and upper middle class parents, who all lived in the more expensive enclaves of the posher villages of East Northants.

In those days England was still completely defined by the class system, your roots largely determining your destiny. Nowadays social strata is defined by money, class is largely irrelevant. I was from a family that was skilled working class morphing into lower middle class. Why I did not try to socialise with kids from my own background is a mystery to me, maybe I was subconsciously social climbing. I think I must have realised this, for almost as soon as I left that institution of pressure cooker learning I began to shed my school friends, who by now were attending Young Farmers Association discos and drinking in Conservative Clubs. I endured the former once, and a hellish experience it was too, picking up on the inmates' overbearing sense of entitlement and watching the gyrations of the Hitler Youth to the strains of Abba. Never again!

Another of the reasons I left my posh friends behind was that even though some of them had little interest in music, they all liked Genesis. This is the post Gabriel version that came to epitomise 80s yuppie culture, an icon for vacuous consumerism and totally meaningless. They said nothing to me about my life, as someone once said.

Helping me along the path to enlightenment was the NME, and previous to that a marvellously rebellious Eng. Lit. teacher. Between them I discovered left wing politics, Satre, Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, Malcolm Bradbury, and of course, punk rock. By the time 1979 rolled around I was already a gig going veteran, but being out in the sticks, revolutionary left wing post punks were thin on the ground and I had turned into an isolated angst-ridden socially awkward ultra left wing pseudo-intellectual. Unsurprisingly I couldn't get laid. Luckily, not long into the 1980s, or The Forgotten Decade as I like to (fail to) remember it, I discovered the deelites of t'herb an' t'ing, and chilled out considerably.

Back in 1979, the accoutrement of choice for the under washed and unshaggable was the army greatcoat, worn year round of course. One thing I have never been is a fashion victim, and I never owned one of those monstrosities, but I wore it metaphorically, oh yes!

The soundtrack to all this was the post punk experimentalism led by Public Image Limited, John Lydon having shaken off the shackles of the three chord strictures of the otherwise seismically revolutionary Sex Pistols, a band who changed youth culture and music forever. Bands like PiL had the freedom to do whatever they wanted and they took popular music to places it never knew existed, let alone visited. It was a time of crazy experimentation, some of which worked brilliantly, some not so much, but even the failures had a certain charm.

Which brings me round to this month's Mojo magazine cover CD. Mostly these things get played once, if at all, and binned. This time though the CD strikes a chord (probably Em) as it contains a fair few tracks from the personally defining era I have just rambled on about.

It wasn't all grim up (musical) north, as the opening track on Death Disco proves. Primitive Painters by Felt cheats a bit, as it came out in 1985 but the combination of Lawrence's trademark wandering melody lines and Liz Fraser's voice lets it off the hook, and then some. Probably Felt's finest six minutes?

Next up is Simply Thrilled Honey by the funkily poptastic Orange Juice. Released in December 1980 it seems that post punk miserablism wasn't all I remember it to be.

Tracks three and four passed me by at the time. This is an era when the only outlet for this kind of music was the John Peel show, aired on week nights between 10pm and midnight. Even the biggest Peel devotee can't have listened to every minute of every one, and if you missed it, you missed it. No podcasts or iPlayer back then boys and girls.

Some of these tracks I bought on singles or albums, some were preserved on now long discarded cassettes recorded from Peely's show. The punky Wire-like Ain't You by Kleenex, an all-girl band from Switzerland of all places was one of the latter, and it's nearly 35 years since I've heard this charming mess of a single. Words that don't scan, chord changes that make no sense, it's great!

As the daddies of post-punk strangeitude, the mighty PiL are allowed a track from their 2012 reformation album, the splendid Deeper Water. If you've not heard This Is PiL, you really should. Of course, what they should have included is the compilation title. Death Disco, to my then still naive musical ears was like something beamed down from an alternate universe, and it remains a timeless classic. Jah Wobble's thunderous bass shudders with murderous intent, over which Keith Levene's spider guitar weaves with spun glass and forms a web from the centre of which John Lydon howls a lament for his dying mother. Watching this on Top of the Pops amidst all the pop and disco trash was a jaw-dropping, really! Look out for Mr Wobble's gap toothed grin...

As ever with these compilations a lot of compromises have been made, probably because of licensing issues. So we get new songs from The Nightingales (Robert Lloyd of Prefects infamy), a growling rant that is actually rather good, and Pere Ubu with a typically bleak David Thomas lyric. Something from The Modern Dance would have been preferable. The mighty Fall also crop up with a new one. You either get it or you don't with Mark E Smith's charges, and I do. Rowche Rumble would be my preference for this compilation.

Next up are The Raincoats with Shouting Out Loud, another Peel cassette recording from my past, or did I buy the single? Who knows, but this band came across like a studious version of The Slits, the latter another glaring omission. The introduction of the violin on this record channels Amon Düül II's first album, no doubt unintentionally. The Monochrome Set are another bunch of oddballs, whose precise pop kind of predates math-rock, although you wouldn't know it from this number. Their Fun For All The Family is an inconsequential piece of fluff and comes from 1982 and their third album, by which time I'd lost interest in them.

Next are Young Marble Giants who were far too twee for me, and then comes Cabaret Voltaire, a bunch of miserablists from Sheffield who married primitive synths with industrial noise and dub guitars, creating a dirty funk dub in the process. No surprise then that Sly Doubt from the supremely individualistic 1981 album Red Mecca is right up my alley. It should have been Nag Nag Nag, of course.

Throbbing Gristle were so strange they flew beneath even my radar. As far as I recall I do not think they were ever played on Peel's show, if they were I missed it. I was aware of them at the time but their sex-terrorist image scared the shit out of me, wuss that I was! Hot On The Heels Of Love, taken from the equally ironically titled 1979 album 20 Jazz Funk Greats sounds like Kraftwerk and is nowhere near as frightening as I was led to believe at the time, as I later discovered.

The compilation ends with Vinni Reilly's sublime Durutti Column, and A Silence is taken from the 1983 album Short Stories For Pauline. A simple but effective song in the style of low key New Order, built around Vinni's trademark reverberating guitar, it is a good end to a CD that has flashes of brilliance but is largely frustrating, as is the manner of these things.

Mojo make up for it with a spread in the magazine on THE classic tracks of the era. Not that Mojo need publicity, but this month's issue is well worth a look if you were the right age at that time, like yours truly.

1. Felt - Primitive Painters
2. Orange Juice - Simply Thrilled Honey
3. Bush Tetras - Too Many Creeps
4. Sonic Youth - Shaking Hell
5. Kleenex - Ain't You
6. Public Image Limited - Deeper Water
7. Nightingales - Dumb & Drummer
8. Pere Ubu - 414 Seconds
9. The Fall - Loadstones
10. The Raincoats - Shouting Out Loud
11. The Monochrome Set - Fun For All The Family
12. Young Marble Giants - Searching For Mr. Right
13. Cabaret Voltaire - Sly Doubt
14. Throbbing Gristle - Hot On The Heels Of Love
15. The Durutti Column - A Silence

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Morrissey - Autobiography

"I am not a number, I am a free man" said Number 6 in The Prisoner, and adopting this defiant stand on individuality I joined a vast number of others who thought they were free men too; I knew that as leader of the best UK pop/rock group of the 80s, one Steven Patrick Morrissey was speaking to me and me alone (and possibly him, and OK, him too) when he warbled his elfin-like way through such wonderfully illuminating ditties as Hand In Glove and This Charming Man, even the arch Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now, although possibly not Shoplifters Of The World Unite or Girlfriend In A Coma!

After the break up of The Smiths our Mozza swiftly became a self-parody, and his increasing isolation within a highly protective, rabid, and paranoid fan-clique allowed my former hero to indulge in increasingly bizarre and ill-judged attempts to reclaim the limelight he had lost after his parting of ways with writing partner Johnny Marr, the best English tunesmith of his generation. This odd behaviour included early misjudged flirtations with what was perceived by some as racism. Morrissey maintains he was simply writing about racism in his lyrics, not eulogising it, in which case, why leave it open to (mis)interpretation? There have been instances when his attempts to be clever have backfired spectacularly, and that was one of them.

His favourite subject nowadays seems to be promoting vegetarianism and animal protectionism with utterly ridiculous pronouncements that have absolutely no sense of proportion. His recent daft outburst equating meat eaters with paedophiles does his cause no favours at all. My favourite Bigmouth Strikes Again moment from our hero has him blaming Beyonce for the extinction of the rhino! All this shows us a man who appears to despise just about everyone on the planet, probably not least himself.

If you thought that introduction was unnecessarily long winded and flowery, you should try reading this grandiloquent tome, the wittily titled Autobiography, a copy of which I received as an Xmas gift last year. I am only now getting round to reading it, partly as a result of my fear that it would drive the final nail into the coffin of any slither of respect I still had for the self-aggrandising oaf.

The first thing I noticed is that somehow this book got itself published on Penguin Classics, which should not really surprise me as Morrissey always had an inflated opinion of his own worthiness, even back when he was on top of his game. It would seem that the artistic credibility of his publisher is in inverse proportion to their need for a healthy bank balance.

The second thing to notice is that there are no chapters. The book starts, and 457 pages later it ends. This can lead to sudden changes in scene, sometimes indicated by extra line beaks, sometimes not. A strange way of writing a book, especially a biography which by necessity is defined by chapters in a life, and an early indication of the lack of a strong editorial hand.

Much of the first part of the book is a diatribe against his educators, who, if we are to believe the author, were a bunch of narrow-minded sadists whose only purpose in life was to put the pupils in their place, preferably using physical force. As I am of the same generation as the author, I can say that most schools had one or two teachers who were bullies, they most likely still do, but if you kept your head down you'd be ok. I have to say that on the rare occasion when my ear was clipped by a flying board rubber, or my knuckles rapped by a set-square, it was probably because I deserved it. Morrissey exaggerates all this to promote his "outsider as martyr" persona. A cliché becomes a cliché because it is based on truth, and the old maxim "it never did me any harm" certainly applies here. Would that some real discipline existed in our seats of learning nowadays instead of mollycoddling "isolation rooms" or threats of expulsion, which from a miscreant's point of view simply means less school!

What he does manage to impart with some distinction in the first part of the book is the grinding poverty of his childhood, growing up in Manchester slums. As far as biographical writing goes, this early section is by far the best, and from a literary point of view it's nearly all downhill from there on in. However, even here there are parts that do not quite fit. In his early mid-teens Morrissey jets off more than once to see his sister Mary who emigrated to America in 1969. These visits are paid for by his mum whom, given the proportionately huge cost of transatlantic travel back in the 70s compared to now, must have come into money. This is completely at odds with the miserable existence he had described so eloquently just a few pages beforehand. This may be because his mother did not play much of a part in his upbringing at that particular time, and it is another instance where some thematic editing would not have gone amiss.

Obviously, by far the most significant part of Morrissey's musical career from an artistic and cultural impact viewpoint was his tenure in The Smiths. In terms of timescale, given that the band only lasted for 5 years, you may suggest that the mere eighty or so pages devoted to the iconic band is more than generous. But you would be wrong. Before commencing this scribbling it was in my mind to conclude this rambling discourse with something along the lines of "Nobody is buying this book to read about Morrissey's solo career", but given that his popularity, outside the UK at any rate, now appears to be on a much higher level than it ever was in the time of The Smiths, from a purely commercial standpoint that line seems to be redundant. It is true however that if a cultural historian 100 years hence acknowledges Morrissey as going down in musical history, one can guarantee it will be because of his part in The Smiths and nothing else.

The most frustrating aspect of the pages on The Smiths is the complete absence of any insight as to how the songs came about. It would be good to know how that fantastic riff in How Soon Is Now? evolved, but maybe Morrissey can be excused that one. That the author says nothing, nada, zilch about his writing partnership with Johnny Marr, or gives any insight into his lyric writing process, be it with The Smiths or solo is however, most disappointing. Getting an inkling of the spark between Morrissey and Marr that led to gems such as This Charming Man or Frankly, Mr Shankly would have been more than interesting. I suppose the counter argument is that you can pick up the lyrical influences from the anecdotal references to his schooldays or whatever, but learning nothing about Morrissey's and Marr's creative process from lyric or riff idea to completed song is a big let down.

Morrissey's skewed perspective on The Smiths' legacy is writ large in the fact that he considers their last album, the occasionally good but progressively more weary sounding Strangeways Here We Come to be their best. I am playing it now as it happens, for the first time in years and it sounds like a sailing ship slowly becoming becalmed. I would guess that even the most rabid Smiths fan would not agree with the author on this one.

During The Smiths' pages, Morrissey makes more than one reference to the fact that all the record deals etc were always signed by Morrissey and Marr, not The Other Two, and this acts as a pointer for the bitterness that follows. However, ungrudging praise is given for Mike Joyce and Andy Rourkes' musicianship, and let's face it, despite Morrissey's soon to follow arguments against them being deserving of an equal cut, with any other rhythm section the group would not have sounded the same, the musical chemistry would have been different and success may have passed them by as a result.

The Trial, to use entirely appropriate Kafkaesque title capitals, occupies forty pages in the middle of the book, and chronologically as well as metaphorically it is the fulcrum on which the rest of Morrissey's life balances, both before and after. If there was one section of this book that desperately needed editing, and there isn't just one section believe me, then this is it. You will be sick to death of it when you have read for the 23rd time that Joyce knowingly signed up for his 10%, and that his arguments for deserving 25% were at best ill-formed, but maybe that is the point.

Given Morrissey's unshakeable conviction that he was in the right, a belief he makes sure is indelibly tattooed into the reader's cerebral cortex by the time The Trial section is over, it seems odd that given his more than healthy bank balance that he could find no-one in the despised legal profession to relieve him of some of that wealth in order to prevent him having to shell out considerably more in the long run when he lost first the case and then the appeal.

Some bands simply agree on equal splits from the off, regardless of who writes the music, and that is a far less fractious way of doing things than giving the majority to the songwriters and arguing incessantly about it later. I cannot comment on the judgement that went against Morrissey, and let's not forget, against Marr too, but suffice to say Moz thinks it entirely inequitable. His subsequent bitterness seeps through the pages and pages and pages of repetitive ranting, but for all that I can see his point from a business perspective. However, this isn't "business", it's art, where normal commercial rules do not always apply. In the end it all comes down to generosity of spirit, or lack of it. If The Smiths had been fronted by a man who had his colleagues' as well as his own best interests at heart, and the band was set up on an equal split basis, none of the legal shenanigans would have happened and Moz would not have had to spend hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds defending and appealing and ultimately losing a case that caused no end of personal trauma to all involved.

Johnny Marr, portrayed throughout as "nice but dim" obviously saw that the seemingly endless litigation was doing no-one any favours, and appears to have accepted the inevitable outcome, an outcome that was equally costly to him, one assumes. If Morrissey had as much pragmatism as ego and less of a sense of entitlement he maybe should have taken the same course.

Morrissey's post-trial solo years are clattered through at a pace, becoming a list of album and song titles, chart positions, and ever growing audiences worldwide, crowd numbers quoted with understandable pride. It is noticeable that the foot is now off the gas slightly as far as weighty wordiness is concerned, as if he'd had enough of writing the thing by then. His barbed put downs disguised as praise find an easy target in Julie Burchill late on, and it is the humorous tongue lashings that serve to leaven the sometimes overbearing self-righteousness that surfaces now and again in the book.

He makes no judgement on, or takes any responsibility for the fact that as the years have gone by his audiences seem to have become more and more excitable, with mention of punch ups and fights dropped in here and there. As understandable as his pride in his increasing popularity is his grump about the ongoing perception in his home country that whatever he does now, however successful it is, it will not be as good as The Smiths. Sorry Moz, but when you have been part of something as culturally significant, and simply as good as your former band that's always going to be the case. Just ask Paul McCartney.

For an autobiography there is very little insight into the author's personal life, or maybe he doesn't have much of a life away from the roar of the greasepaint? His sexuality is kept deliberately vague. To say he swings both ways would be a wild exaggeration; more accurately, he very occasionally gently inches over the asexual tipping point in either direction, but seems to stay uncommitted and presumably untouched, one way or the other, for most of the book. This is almost a complete guess as very little is revealed, apart from one male and one female relationship, the latter seeing him briefly musing on becoming a parent.

Morrissey is followed by the Grim Reaper throughout the book, with family, friends, business acquaintances, and musical colleagues alike falling in his wake, some soon after meeting him for the first time. He played a major part in getting his heroes The New York Dolls, or the three still alive at any rate, to reform for the 2004 Meltdown Festival, which he curated. A mere month later Arthur Kane was dead. This is the most eye-catching instance of several similar occurrences, some couched in black humour, some dismissed in a short sentence.

One-liner homilies scattered throughout are attributed to David Bowie, who if we are to go along with the impression given by the author is really a spinster aunt bestowing wisdom on her favourite nephew. This is odd in itself, as Morrissey once walked out on Bowie after a few gigs as his support act on the European leg of Bowie's 1995 Outside tour, allegedly blaming Bowie for stealing his thunder! This is the kind of juicy goss we all want answers to, even if they turn out to be completely one-sided and catty. Unfortunately this is another incident in Mozza's life that this time is not so much as mentioned let alone explained.

Mozza's ego is resplendent throughout, but that that is nothing I was not expecting. He often obsesses about the chart positions of his records, blaming his record company if the albums or singles do not climb as high as he thinks they should, which of course is No.1.

Morrissey admits at various points throughout the book that he is not easy to get on with, which at least shows self-awareness. Guided by his impish but deadly dry sense of humour I have learnt that Morrissey can moan for England, and that he holds grudges going back decades judging by the vast number of folk from teachers, to band mates, to managers, to peers, you name it, they all come in for a righteous verbal lashing. Definitely at the top of the hate list is, perhaps understandably, Judge John Weeks, probably followed by Rough Trade's Geoff Travis, with Tony Wilson at No.3, with a bullet. Morrissey's catty humour is at its best when delivering putdowns to Wilson, one of many characters in the book he has, or in this case had, little time for. He even lambasts John Peel, a man whom it was impossible not to like, even if you detested his taste in music. His hatred of Thatcher is there for all to see, but I'm not about to argue with that!

Once finished I put the book down having not learned much more about the author than I knew when I set out on this cruise on the seas of verbosity, which is surely the point of any good biography, auto or otherwise?

With more insight into his familial and personal relationships, and into his creative processes, some hefty wielding of an editors scalpel, particularly in The Trial section, and some very necessary chapterisation, Autobiography would have been a good read. As it is, Autobiography is a tsunami of style over fleetingly good and sometimes drearily repetitive content, and a lot harder going than it ever needed to be.

For a scathing put down from someone equally as opinionated and unlikeable as Morrissey himself, posh nosh "critic" A A Gill's acidly pompous blast is rather amusing, if nothing else. Gill's infamous review won this year's Hatchet Job of the Year award from the Ominvore website, an ironic name given Mozza's militant veggie stance, eh? However, would you want to win anything where one of the big noises on the judging panel was that dreadful snob Brian Sewell? Actually Gill probably would, once he came to terms with being judged by a mere human being, heaven forfend!

A. A. Gill is a man who gets to stuff his over-privileged face in elitist restaurants, gratis, and is then handsomely paid to moan about the experience in print. Morrissey is a man who over the years has slowly disappeared into a vortex of self-importance. One can only conclude that they deserve one another.

A sentence from the final page perhaps best sums up the strange creature that is Steven Patrick Morrissey: "I am no more unhappy than anyone else, and most humans are wretched creatures". Perhaps he has a point.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

A musical postcard from the Yorkshire Pennines

It's been a while, eleven months actually, since I last reported on what's been going on up in that enclave of endless creativity that is the Big Block 454 studio up in Hebden Bridge, North Yorkshire. In that time Colin Robinson along with his sonic cohort Richard Knutson under the name of Churn Milk Joan has released two albums; Trading Cards On The Balcony in November 2013 and the charmingly titled I Live In Your Stomach in January this year, both politely placed below the radar of an uncaring world.

I have been even more lax in reporting on Colin's ambient venture Jumble Hole Clough. Since April 2013's Two Days In April he has put out a mere three studio albums and one live album! This guy makes even the likes of uber-prolific Bill Nelson seem positively lazy. I'll have a listen to the JHC offerings later, but for now it's Churn Milk Joan for our delectation.

In case you were wondering, the ancient sounding names Colin gives his bands come from local landmarks near his home town. That area of The Pennines, or "the backbone of England" as it is known, is one of the most starkly beautiful in our sceptre'd isle, and proof positive that we are not, as some tabloid rags would have you believe, being buried in concrete.

First up, we have Trading Cards on the Balcony, which kicks off in typically oblique fashion as Richard tells us "I have a Barbie house, and a Barbie soul", set to a minimalist funk groove, The Gang Of Four with new musical electronica to play with.

Richard has the kind of nasal drawl in his delivery that were he English and not American could only be Mancunian. Did You See Buddha? has him leerily intoning "See see Buddah, is that OK with you?" as a threat; an implied irony that makes me grin. 

The Farm goes for a stoopid space-funk thang, with a trace of drool on the chin, early Can colliding with The Edgar Broughton Band's marvellously bonkers Is For Butterflies.

1000 Golden Tigers, who amongst other things, "play chess with polar bears" are also treated to a few incendiary sparks flying from Colin's guitar after their languid stroll through a surreal wah-reverb jungle. Colin really lets rip on closing track We Are Divine, playing the role of an alternate universe Eddie Hazel. The longer this number progresses, the more loose-limbed and crazy it becomes.

A fine and mad album for those of us with three left legs!

1. Barbie House (4:38)
2. Did You See Buddha? (3:55)
3. Sleep (3:43)
4. The Farm (5:54)
5. Bunny Punch (4:08)
6. In a Room/In a Room/In a Car (4:31)
7. Going to San Juan (5:46)
8. 1,000 Golden Tigers (6:08)
9. Drain Down Time (6:51)
10. We Are Divine (8:42)

Total running time - 54:21 

Line up:
Richard Knutson - lead & backing vocals, bass, guitar, percussion
Colin Robinson - guitars, basses, looper, synth, percussion, backing vocals, groovebox, sampler, ocarina, tenor saxophone, found voices

Marian Sutton - field recording (track 5)


Where Trading Cards On The Balcony was a relatively controlled affair, I Live In Your Stomach is far more strung out, looser and more hit and miss as a result. You could say that I Live... and Trading Cards... both set out for a long walk across the moor, but I Live... forgot to take a compass.

The only way to get into this is to moo like that sheep on CMJ's Bandcamp header, and lose your preconceptions. There be odd things afoot in Hebden Bridge, and right from the beginning this is apparent.

The sparse funk extrapolations of A Tangerine For the English Protestant becomes the background for the repeated refrain "Sadomasochism" from Colin and Richard in world-weary unison forever and a day. The version of this slab of hypno-funk that you hear on this album may well have been edited down from an original three hours plus.

This album is a funker's free jazz trip, and Parthenogenesis continues to mine an improvisational seam that in this particular instance does not quite work. Thankfully we are back in the groove for the twenty minute excursion into the depths of CMJ's dark imaginings that is Plexus & Pylori, led by Richard's menacing tones over his Jah Wobble-like bass lines.

"So many conflicting realities to choose. I will take them by the balls you never use" is an angry declamation against the worker who is conditioned to view his train journey to work as "a measure of success". The parallel is drawn between the titular parasites that live in the gut and the hapless commuter, which is stretching things a bit, but then again things are never quite what they seem down here, deep underground in the belly of Churn Milk Joan.

Plexus & Pylori is a dark, claustrophobic, and strange tune and the lyrics get ever more abstract and impressionistic while retaining the feel of dissatisfaction at the way things are in our cosy Western world. "...Tell me how we did today,...Why did you get out of bed?" Alternatively, who cares? Pour a large one, light one up, whatever your poison, and lose yourself in their dystopian boogie-woogie.

The Kearsley Cargo Cult has a wonderful reverberating bass line above which Colin's spidery echoed notes build a fragile web, finally triumphant with an excursion of fuzz-wah righteousness.

This album is by far the more "difficult" of the two I have written about here, but it certainly has its moments. No doubt there will be more to follow from this productive duo, hidden away in their culture bunker, buried deep in England's spinal column. 

1. A Tangerine for the English Protestant (10:39)
2. Parthenogenesis (9:56)
3. Plexus & Pylori (20:48)
4. The Kearsley Cargo Cult (11:23)

Total running time - 52:48

Line up:
Richard Knutson - vocals, fretless bass, drums, percussion, bamboo marimba, groovebox vibes
Colin Robinson - guitar, looper, groovebox, groovebox vibes, drum machine, sampler, percussion, bamboo marimba, kalimba, post-horn, The Thing, bowed tumbi, ocarina, recorder, whistling and laughing.

No synthesisers.

The samples used on "The Kearsley Cargo Cult" were recorded by Mark Joell and Colin Robinson at the Purley Chase Swedenborgian Centre, Warwickshire in 2007.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

"This is your Captain speaking...Your Captain is dead"

I have just torn myself away from a thread on the Facebook Big Big Train page, where a healthy debate is underway on the pros and cons of that strange many-horned beast that has risen from the murky depths: the Prog Cruise.

There are few of these now; the Yes-curated Cruise To The Edge, Progressive Nation At Sea, The Moody Blues Cruise, Melloboat, Rick Wakeman's Submarine To Yalta, etc etc. I may have made that last one up!

I can think of a few reasons why these trips are most assuredly not for me, some are a personal thing as I'm not a fan of cruises per sé. For this piece I will concentrate on a reason not to indulge in "prog en mer", and one not considered by those drooling at the prospect of being cooped up with their musical heroes, and that is the elitist insularity of it all.

On the face of it these cruises might seem good value; Cruise To The Edge for example starts at $550 per person for 4 full days on the boat, calling at Isla da Roatan, Honduras, and Cozumel, Mexico. The problem is, if you live more than a couple of hundred miles from the departure and arrival point of Miami USA, there is the added cost of getting there by air.

However, all that is irrelevant if you happen to be a young prog fan, say in your mid-twenties, who is not fortunate enough to be in high paid employment, or failing that you do not have a well-heeled Dad who can take you, or pay for your passage. Our young fan might well be enthralled at the prospect of seeing the Cruise To The Edge bill over four days and nights, but he (it nearly always is a "he") has more chance of being invited to be lead singer with Yes than he has of ever affording the ticket.

And let's not forget that even among the predominantly male, predominantly middle-aged prog audience, those that can afford these cruises are almost certainly in a minority anyway.

As if that isn't elitist enough, there's the added tiered ticketing system. The $550 ticket is only the entry point. For an arm AND a leg you can get to be Chris Squire's butler for a week. Elitism within elitism! A DPRP colleague queried my argument by asking would I expect Lamborghini to stop making cars because I cannot afford them? Obviously not, and a spurious argument, for as yet there is no band that caters exclusively for an elitist market, unless Yes intend to spend the rest of their career at sea. Beats retiring I suppose.

The cruises are a boon for the top prog bands, most of whom are at least ten years older than the fifty-something audience they attract generally, and specifically on these sea-borne charabancs. They get paid their fees and have none of the hassles of life on the road, something a band whose average age is late 60s no doubt appreciates. The promoters must be rubbing their hands with glee too, as the tickets fly out of the box office to land in the inbox of some overpaid financial services consultant in Virginia Water/Old Westbury (insert expensive suburb of choice of chosen metropolis).

One can well imagine those "Meet and Greet" sessions they advertise descending into farce as a bunch of middle-aged blokes swap numbers of divorce lawyers and where to buy the best motability scooter in Henley-on-Thames. I jest, hopefully, but the only conclusion I can draw from this is that these cruises are elitist, and the bands and their managers are ultimately shooting themselves in the foot. The "Prog Cruise" can only alienate that very thing prog needs in order to survive beyond the lifespan of the auditory senses of those of us who are, shall we say, well past the first flush of youth; a young audience.

Some might say that prog dying out would be a good thing, and there will always be an audience for progressive and forward thinking music. Me, I couldn't possibly comment!

Then there is the insularity I mentioned earlier. Unlike a festival on terra firma over a few days where you will get a wide variety of bands encouraging healthy debate, here, in order to keep the fans of the lead bands happy, and no doubt to sell tickets to their predominantly conservative demographic, as they are the ones with the money, the rest of the bill has to "fit", even if loosely. The audience will be all of a similar mind and wallet, and it all becomes too cliquey for me. Now, if they had thrown in a couple of bands that were a bit edgy, a bit different, say miRthkon and Magma, to pluck two names at random from the CDs piled up to my right, then the bill would no doubt get my vote from an aesthetic point of view. As it is, it seems to be a case of a nice safe love-in, where you will no doubt get the louder passengers boasting about the size of their pay packets, mostly metaphorically, but literally in some cases, I've no doubt.

All in all, the Prog Cruise is a cash cow, but will turn out to be a temporary thing that in the long term can only harm the very scene it purports to promote.

This has been your intrepid reporter Roger McNasty, hiding under the tarpaulin of lifeboat 3C, in fear of his life and sanity.

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