Thursday, 31 October 2013

NT @ 50 = 46

As you probably know, the National Theatre is celebrating being 50 years old at the moment. There are celebratory talks at the National, documentaries on TV and radio, features here and there and even (gosh) a celebratory website.  The physical reality of the National Theatre is a 1970s concrete 'brutalist' building - before then it was based in The Old Vic.

I've attended a few of the celebratory talks with people who've played at the theatre over the years such as Imelda Staunton and husband Jim Carter, Julie Walters, Simon Russell Beale and Brenda Blethyn as well as former director, Richard Eyre. They've taken place in the early evenings in the National theatres before they open for the evenings punters. They've been great fun and a great idea.

The National Theatre is actually three theatres in the same building. It's made up of the Olivier Theatre, the Lyttelton Theatre and the Cottesloe Theatre (currently being renovated and will open in 2014 with a new name). With three theatres on the go it has the opportunity of putting on so many shows each year. My favourite theatre is the Olivier and I can't believe that it will ever change its name.  How could it?

My personal archivist pointed out the other day that I've seen 46 National Theatre productions (some more than once) in the last 10 years (and will be seeing an additional two before the year is out). So here's the last ten years of the National and me...

2003: Henry V, Jumpers, His Girl Friday, Play Without Words

I remember Adrian Lester as Henry V in a modern day Iraq-type scenario for the great war play but I don't recall anything about 'Jumpers' at all. Zoe Wanamaker was great in 'His Girl Friday' and 'Play Without Words' was sublime. We saw 'Play' with Dezur from New York and I saw the same production again last year at Sadlers Wells as part of the Matthew Bourne 25th anniversary celebrations.

2004: Jerry Springer: The Opera, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

Two big ensemble pieces with far more swearing in 'Jerry Springer' than is good for anyone and some good old fashioned smut in 'Forum'.

2005: The House Of Bernarda Alba, Once In A Lifetime

I still remember Penelope Wilton leading the cast of women in 'Bernarda Alba', wringing her hands at the front of the stage and putting on a brave face. I find it hard to believe it was that long ago.

2006: Pillars Of The Community, The Voysey Inheritance

Two Victorian plays in one year.

2007: The Rose Tattoo, Rafta Rafta, The Emperor Jones, War Horse

Zoe Wanamaker (again) in 'Rose Tattoo', the great Meera Syal in 'Rafta', the golden stage opening for 'Jones' and, of course, the brave horse that is Joey in 'War Horse' which I saw twice and, on one night, Steven Sondheim was a few rows in front of us, so who knows what might happen. Joey is so far from being a puppet, he is bravery personified.

2008: Much Ado About Nothing, Present Laughter, The Year Of Magical Thinking, August, Osage County

A great production of 'Much Ado' with Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale speechifying from a deep pond on the stage, a tour de force from Vanessa Redgrave in 'Magical Thinking' and the sprawling complexity of the family drama of 'Osage'.

2009: Every Good Boy Deserves A Favour, The Pitman Painters, Burnt By The Sun, All's Well That Ends Well, Time And The Conways, Nation

'The Pitman Painters' was a revelation with art growing out of the mines of Northumberland between the wars - not quite class warfare but some powerful message nonetheless. I loved the almost fairytale nature  of 'All's Well' and the clarity of vision and writing of 'The Conways'.

2010: London Assurance, The White Guard, After The Dance, Spring Storm, Hamlet, Fela!

This was a good year, with Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw playing off each other in a most disgraceful and humorous way - how dare they be that outrageously funny! Rory Kinnear's 'Hamlet' is the play that cemented him in my mind as an actor and 'Fela!' was, largely, the same as the Broadway production of the life of Fela Kuti and Afrobeat.

2011: Twelfth Night, Frankenstein, The Cherry Orchard, The Comedy Of Errors

'Twelfth Night' remains one of my least favourite productions for many reasons (read the blog if you want to know more) and 'Comedy' sticks in my mind for the failings of the moving (or, rather, non-moving) bits of the set. Not the most successful year other than the great production of 'Frankenstein' with it's revolving lead players.

2012: Travelling Light, She Stoops To Conquer, Timon Of Athens, The Last Of The Hausmanns, Scenes From An Execution

A pick'n'mix year, with 'Travelling' and 'Timon' both unsatisfactory and 'She Stoops' and 'Hausmanns' as highlights. I loved 'Hausmanns' with Julie Walters as the still-hippy mother to two grown up children with Rory Kinnear playing gay by standing on one leg.

2013: Hymn/Cocktail Sticks, Children Of The Sun, People, Othello, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, The Amen Corner, Edward II 

Two plays by Alan Bennett, the powerful and moving 'Amen Corner' and my disappointment with 'Othello' (with Adrian Lester from ten years earlier and Rory Kinnear again) and the terribly disappointing 'Edward II'.

Still, I have tickets to see two more National productions in November and December - 'Emil & The Detectives' and 'The Light Princess', the Tori Amos musical. I'm looking forward to seeing both.

So there you have it, my own tribute to the National Theatre.  I wonder what's on next year ... ?

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

'Jersey Boys' at the Prince Edward Theatre

At the weekend I saw 'Jersey Boys', the musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. I've been puzzled about how long it's been playing so far and never thought the Four Seasons were really that big in the UK and then I heard the songs and realised that I knew many of them. I suppose they just flew under the radar?

I knew 'Jersey Boys' was a jukebox musical, but didn't know that it really was a jukebox with song after song after song with little narrative in-between songs. The speed of the thing was a bit frustrating at first as was the absence of any real attempt at characterisation or plot but, on reflection, that's not such a bad thing.

We're presented with an empty stage with a scaffold walkway at the back and stairs down to the stage. Props are wheeled on at great speed and even quicker to be wheeled off. The pace is fast and then we're given a song, another prop rises from the trapdoors or is wheeled on and we get another song, an instant set change with another song. And so on. Bam bam bam. Change props, change costumes and cue another song. I don't know why but it took me most of the first half to stop being shocked by the speed and pace, always running to try to keep up. But, y'know what? I enjoyed it.

The story takes place over 25-30 years as we see the Four Seasons coming together and then having hit after hit, getting into trouble, growing up and then splitting. The actors never age or reflect the years changing in any way - they wear suits throughout and keep the same hair styles. I only became aware of the passing of the years when Frankie rings his 19 year old runaway daughter at one point. He's gone from little more than a child himself to fathering a 19 year old. Where was disco Frankie in his white waistcoat and trousers with curley (permed?) hair that I remember from Top Of The Pops?

The actors all had nice voices that blended well and they worked together nicely, with good rapport. They're clearly well practiced and terribly professional but the repetitive dance routines got a bit wearying - surely they had more than two routines in all their years together? But perhaps I'm being nit-picky.

Ultimately, a show like this will stand or fall on the quality of the songs in the jukebox and it's longevity is a testimony to the Four Seasons songs. Considering they got together before I was born I was surprised to realise that I knew so many of them - 'Sherry', 'Big Girls Don't Cry', 'Walk Like A Man', 'Rag Doll', and, in the 1970s, 'Who Loves You' and 'December 1963 (Oh What A Night)'. Then there were the ones I knew but didn't realise the originals were by the Four Seasons including 'Bye Bye Baby' (the Bay City Rollers), 'Can't Take My Eyes off You' (which I always thought was an Andy Williams original) and 'My Eyes Adored You' (by every male singer).

There was definitely an age thing going on with the over-50s dominating the audience and they clearly wanted to have a good time. Clapping and singing along, at one point I wanted to remind the people behind me that it wasn't really the Four Seasons on stage, that they were actors and this was a theatre and not a concert hall. But that would've been churlish. It's always a good thing when people enjoy their theatre but there are limits people. The age thing was emphasised by the queue for the gents at half-time and at the end.

The tickets are generally at silly prices but if you're at a loss for something to do one evening then you could do worse than pick 'Jersey Boys' for some non-stop entertainment and some memorable songs.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

'The Scottsboro Boys' at The Young Vic

Tonight I was treated to a ticket to see 'The Scottsboro Boys' at the Young Vic, the first UK production of the last Kander & Ebb musical. I hadn't heard of it before - or the story it tells - but I'm very pleased to have seen it.

It tells the story of nine black teenagers arrested in Alabama for the rape of two white women in 1931 and all are convicted despite there being no evidence of rape. We see the lads young and hopeful, riding the train to a better life and jobs when it all falls apart and they're thrown into jail. They become a cause celebre for the North against the South which really doesn't help the lads, even when one of the women admits in court that she lied. Eventually the four youngest lads are released and the other five serve their sentences.

That makes it sound terribly serious - and the underlying story is serious - but that's where Kander & Ebb come in to make it a musical worthy of the stage to tell the story and get it before audiences. They use the theme of an old fashioned Southern minstrel show to tell the story and give it structure. I have to admit that I recognised this early on by remembering the 'Minstrel' section from the film 'White Christmas', one of the first big song 'n' dance numbers in the film.

We have the Interlocutor who tells the story and plays the role of the white 'boss' and judge and we have Mr Bones and Mr Tambo who take the story forward as they also play the roles of the sheriff and his deputy as well as the lawyers in the court case.  This is a nice motif since they're black as Bones and Tambo but then play white folks by donning different clothes. Just as the two white women are played by two of the black boys wearing a hat and a cardy round their shoulders.

And shadowing many of the scenes is a silent and mysterious woman, the only woman in the show. Who is she?

It's all a terribly professional show and it was great to see two actors in this after seeing them earlier in the summer - Adebayo Bolaji as one of the lads' leads (from 'The Color Purple') and James T Lane who played Ruby, one of the women (from 'A Chorus Line'). Julian Glover plays the Interlocutor (the 'boss', judge and governor). Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon played Mr Bones/Sheriff/Lawyer and Mr Tambo/Deputy/Lawyer respectively and they were excellent, creating laughable and macabre grotesques as they went along. I'd also single out Kyle Scatliffe for praise as the lead lad who refuses to tell a lie even when his freedom depends on it. He played Haywood Patterson who eventually dies in prison.

The show ends by taking the minstrel theme to it's ultimate conclusion in which all the black actors come on stage all blacked up and with white lips like minstrels of old. They each tell their story and what happened to them next - and none of it is pretty - before wiping off the make-up and leaving the stage as the Interlocutor commands them to perform. This was received in silence only to be followed by a standing ovation from much of the audience.

I'd recommend seeing this show if you can - there's something here for everyone.

And who is the mysterious shadow woman? You'll just have to see the show to find that out...

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Goodnight Lou Reed

The news is spreading that Lou Reed died today. That's sad. As ever, there seems to be a rush to be the first to post an RIP message on twitter or facebook. This is a new phenomenon, a trend courtesy of social media allowing us, mere ordinary people, to say our own farewells. I won't say RIP since I don't know whether he'd want to rest in peace. For all I know he'd want to get the biggest amp and turn it up to 11 and scream out random lyrics over endless power chords. Forever.

I first came across Lou Reed when I heard 'Walk On The Wildside' on the Johnnie Walker Radio 1 show when I was 12. It was an odd song, oddly mature for the times and I had no idea what it was about but the sound, those strange words and the lazy bass made it memorable. And those 'coloured girls', the Thunderthighs singing backing vocals. I didn't buy 'Transformer' then but bought it a few years later in about 1976.

In 1978 I saw 'Street Hassle', the 12" single, and bought it. That's when I first heard The Velvet Underground. Two VU songs ('Waiting For The Man' and 'Venus In Furs') were on the 'B' side. That gave me another avenue to explore.

Lou wasn't at the top of my list to buy new music from but I gradually filled out my collection, slowly but surely. There was always something interesting going on in his songs. I don't think I ever bought a Lou Reed album when it first came out, there was always a delay of years. There are already lots of Lou Reed compilation albums out there and I suspect more will appear.

One of my favourite albums is 'New York', full of songs that sum up the city he lived in and that had been one of his long-standing muses. Another is 'Songs For Drella' with John Cale about Andy Warhol. I play both every now and then, probably more than any of his other albums other than 'Transformer'.

Eno is reported to have once commented that everyone who bought the Velvet's first album when it came out went out and started a band. I've no idea if that's true or not but I hope that when people hear the news about Lou they all play a song or two and remember Lou. I also hope that people who've never heard of him look him up and listen for the first time. Maybe that will inspire a new artist to achieve greatness in one of the arts and trace their beginnings back to Lou. That would be good.

Goodnight Lou.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Do You Remember Your First Record?

Well, do you? Mine was 'Lola' by The Kinks and I got it for Christmas in 1970. Over the summer 1970 me and my brothers went to stay with our aunt and uncle while my mother was in hospital for an operation so that my dad and grandma could focus on my mother. My cousin Jackie was a few years older than us and well into music. That summer there were two big records, 'Rainbow' by Marmalade and 'Lola' by The Kinks. They were played endlessly on the radio and on Top Of The Pops.

Back to school and my mam was out of hospital and doing fine. That Christmas we got a record player and I got my first record, 'Lola'. I never saw The Kinks play live but I've seen Ray Davies perform the song a few times and I love the way the middle aged audience sings along lustily in praise of a transexual. The magical Lola is a hero of the 20th Century and long may she reign.

L-O-L-A Lola!

Southbank Poster

Here is the new artwork to promote the Southbank. I like the Southbank. It has the Royal Festival Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall for concerts, it has the National Theatre and The Old Vic for theatrical productions, it has the Hayward Gallery for art, it has the British Film Institute and the giant iMax cinema and it has eateries and shops. It has the Big Wheel (aka The London Eye). It also has the River Thames and a stunning walk along the south bank of the river, majestic bridges and the beaches at low tide. It has the best railway station in the world in Blackfriars, built in the middle of Blackfriars Bridge that presents amazing views of Tower Bridge and St Paul's Cathedral when you get off the train. It has buskers and living statues and a magic roundabout and Udderbelly every summer and Jubilee Gardens where I took part in the Rain of Poems.

I served as a London Ambassador on the Southbank during the 2012 Olympics when London was pretty and its denizens all wore smiles. We had the sun and summer heat back then. And every winter it has an ice-rink, a Christmas market and lights in the trees and, when we're lucky, snow.

At the moment the views from the Southbank are rather splendid with the nights drawing in, walking east and seeing the lights of the skyscrapers in the City on the other side of the river. Even better to be in the middle of Waterloo Bridge and to look at the lights on both sides of the river. A magical sight.

As Ray Davies sings, 'Waterloo sunset's fine...'. And rather beautiful too, I would add.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Un-noted Theatre (aka What do I say?)

I've been to a number of theatrical productions in the last six months that I didn't really know what to say about them. Not that they were necessarily bad, just that I was a bit lost.

'The Winslow Boy' at The Old Vic

I wasn't desperately keen to see this despite the great reviews but had to go. I've seen the film (or at least most of the film) which was a Sunday afternoon staple in the '70s so I was familiar with the tale of the father and his pride and honour. This was always about the father, not the boy who stole a postal order while at military college - or did he? There was some excellent acting in this production but the bottom line was that I didn't really care if the lad was a thief or not. I suspect I should have.

Henry Goodman was excellent as Mr Winslow, starting off a vigorous middle-aged man and ending in a wheelchair worn out my the trials and tribulations of the case. I was most impressed by Naomi Frederick as the suffragette sister with hints of politics in her future.

'Othello' at The National Theatre

I was really looking forward to this production (which is still running at the time of writing) with Adrian Lester and Rory Kineer in the leads as Othello and Iago. I saw a great production of the play in 2011 with Clarke Peters and Dominic West and, I suppose, I was expecting an improved version of that production. And I felt let down by the 2013 version of a military camp in Iraq or Afghanistan with Ikea-type build it yourself furniture.

My problems with the production started early on - why would a women in stretch jeans talk about her husband 'owning' her and why on earth would this be discussed with the elders of Venice? The number of unlikelies just kept mounting up until Desdemona is murdered in her panties in a plywood bed. Like yeah? I don't think so. And that is what I found disappointing about the production.

The play just didn't work for me I'm afraid. Adrian Lester has probably been waiting for the right time to play Othello (it's inevitable really) for a long time and the chance to play with Rory must be perfect but it didn't work for me.

'The Bodyguard' at The Adelphi Theatre

I'm not a fan of Whitney or of 'The Bodyguard' (I've never seen the film all the way through) but when Beverley Knight joined the cast as the female lead then that changed everything. I was introduced to Beverley ten years ago with 'Affirmation' and she was my favourite at the Paralympics 2012 ceremony singing 'I Am What I Am'.

The play started off OK, introducing the characters and giving them the right motivations for whatever was going to happen - the diva, the overlooked sister, the reluctant hero, etc - and I think that's where it all started to go wrong for me. It was rather clinical and unfeeling. It was almost as if every sign of story (I won't say plot) was whittled down to move on with another song - get the acting over with and start another song.  As I commented at half time, there was a lot of wood on that stage.

It's a great vehicle for Bev though and shows off her great voice. The stage came alight when she opened her mouth to let rip with another song, it's just a shame that the production didn't match her high calibre. At one point Beverley sings with her 'sister' and that is such a bad move - the 'sister' has a great voice for a stage musical but, next to a natural singer like Bev, she just fails.

I'm pleased to have seen it but I don't think I'll be going back.

'Edward II' at The National Theatre

I'm a fan of Christopher Marlowe who has written some of the greatest verse in the English language - and some people argue that he was Shakespeare - so I was very keen to see this production of a not often performed play. The Olivier stage at the National Theatre seemed an ideal space for it too. O how wrong I was ....

As soon as I walked into the theatre I realised there was something wrong. Namely, a rubbishy dressed stage with the back walls exposed, a cleaner still vacuuming the carpet, racks of costumes on display. And a sort of shed behind the carpet and the throne. Eh? And it went downhill from there with jerky hand-held video cameras used to (what?) effect. There's even a Benny Hill speeded up sequence filmed on the top of the theatre for some obscure reason. Um, what on earth was going on?

Edward's gay credentials were made obvious by snogging his commoner lover (who had an American accent for some reason) and his brother is now his sister in wobbly high heels. Queen Isobella's French credentials were demonstrated by having her smoke Gauloises cigarettes. Edward III stayed the same age throughout for some reason in his/her school uniform.  Um...?

The director obviously had a strong vision for this production but failed to explain it to me. I felt terribly let down.

'Much Ado About Nothing' at The Old Vic

This is the new, much publicised version of the play starring Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones. I saw them in a touching partnership in 'Driving Miss Daisy' on Broadway a few years ago and someone obviously had the bright idea of casting them as jousting lovers in 'Much Ado'. And that was the first mistake.

I saw an amazing production of 'Much Ado' last year with Meera Syal as Beatrice and she milked every line for a laugh and got the rest of the cast to do the same. O how I laughed. This production raised a smile or two and that says it all for me. Sorry to be cruel, but seeing James Earl Jones shuffle around the stage in his parachute-style onesie does not make for exciting theatre. Neither does an under-dressed stage with only a large table (was it meant to be a table?) as the key piece of staging make for pleasant viewing.

I've seen several productions of the play over the years and Claudio - the lover of Hero - is always an awkward role, but this Claudio was the worst by far (I can't be bothered to look up his name). His American accent was awful and he sounded like Rocky Balboa ordering a pizza for his big scene at Hero's funeral - yes, that amount of acting and emotion. C'mon people, this is The Old Vic - get it right!

I'll leave it there I think. It's always a thrill to see Vanessa - particularly on that stage from which Laurence Olivier announced her birth, the birth of a great actress - but some productions are better than others.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Petula Clark at The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Last Sunday I went to see the lovely Petula Clark at Drury Lane, her only London show this year. Petula has had an incredible career on the stage, screen and record and will always be rightly famed for her optimistic 60s songs that made her a huge star all round the world. Petula was a star before I was born and is still going strong at the age of 80. Her first studio album of new recordings came out earlier this year, 'Lost In You', showing she's still got what it takes.

The format of the show was the same as previous times I've seen Petula - an hour of non-stop songs and chat and reminisces, an interval and then another hour of song and talk. At first she stayed close to the mic stand but then she started roaming the wide stage, visiting different band members, taking over piano duties and going to the front to interact with the audience. At one point she mentioned that Tony Hatch (who wrote most of her 60s classics) was in the audience which got an automatic applause. Petula wrote some of those songs with Tony but she is generally thought of as a singer and actress, not as a writer, which does her a disservice.

Her voice sounded much better than the previous times I've seen her sing live - which I put down to being on tour rather than one-off shows - and she was at the top of her game. We had all the greats, some in full versions and some in medley, songs representing her film career and her stage career. We had songs from the new album and I must say I prefer 'Cut Copy Me' sung live with Petula's great voice rather than the vocoder version on the album. 'With One Look' from 'Sunset Boulevard' was a show-stopper and I loved 'How Are Things In Glocca Morra?' and 'Look To The Rainbow' from 'Finian's Rainbow'. She also did a lovely version of 'Imagine' from the new album but didn't mention being part of the choir on 'Give Peace A Chance'.

How can I pick out favourite songs from an evening full of classic songs? I'll go for 'Round Every Corner', 'I Know A Place', 'Colour My World', 'Who Am I', 'Don't Sleep In The Subway' and a great version of 'Downtown' (that got everyone singing). Those songs will always keep her in the popular memory of those swinging 60s. From the new album we had a great version of 'Cut Copy Me' (with no vocal effects), 'Reflections' and 'Crazy'. And my favourite must be 'I Couldn't Live Without Your Love' (which also got everyone singing). She sang so many other songs, always for the audience and always so professional but, now and then, she seemed to be singing memories to herself (and she must have so many).

Here is the final song of the evening which Petula dedicated to us in the audience, 'Here Comes The Rainbow'.

And thanks to the kind people on Facebook for the photos!

Linda Thompson - 'Won't Be Long Now'

Do you remember that, ages ago in 2009, I blogged about supporting the planned new album from Linda Thompson? Then it went quiet. For years. Then suddenly she and the album were on the radar again? Back in August I got the download (and have been listening to it ever since) and last week the physical copy of the record dropped through my letter box.

It became generally available this week and here is the video for the title track written for her by son, Teddy Thompson, and with additional vocals by her daughter, Kami Thompson. Linda's only in the video in photographic form but that's ok.

My copy of the CD booklet is signed by Linda in red ink. Inside the booklet, on the credits page, I get name-checked as a donor who helped Linda make the record. It's an honour. I've supported the creation of a few records but this is the only one in which I get my name included in the credits. In my eyes that makes me a record producer (well, sort of).

Friday, 18 October 2013

Viv Albertine at The Purcell Room

Tonight was the long-awaited gig by Viv Albertine at The Purcell Room on the Southbank. This was the first time I've seen Viv properly headline a gig and it's nice that it was at a 'proper' venue like The Purcell Room. I supported Viv's PledgeMusic appeal to fund her excellent first solo album ('The Vermillion Border') and I hope there'll be many more.

I never saw The Slits back in the day but I've seen Viv play five times this year:

  • Her promo gig at the 12Bar Club and I helped pay for the band (and was honoured to do so) and heard her reading an extract from her autobiography due to be published next year;
  • As part of the line-up for John Cooper Clarke's great evening of entertainment at the London Palladium;
  • Twice supporting Siouxsie at the Royal Festival Hall during Yoko Ono's excellent Meltdown festival.
  • And now Viv headlining her own gig at The Purcell Room.

And she just keeps getting better! She's got a tight bunch of musicians around her that get the sound she wants to create and tonight was the first time I've seen her with lights to highlight (and lowlight) her songs. An excellent gig all round!

She came on in a noticeable shiny red latex top and launched into 'Don't Believe' after asking the women in her band if they believed in love - they didn't. I, however, loved the nod to the New York Dolls when she said 'L.U.V.'. We had a good selection from the album and 'If Love' from the ep, a well structured set that moved along nicely. Favourites tonight were 'Couples Are Creepy', 'In Vitro' and the show closers of 'I Want More' and a great version of 'Confessions of a MILF' (I love the line 'I chose being an artist over being a wife, now I'm going to lead a very lovely life').

Half-way through the gig she told us that in the old days she used talcum powder when she wore rubber but now it was a case of smearing lube on herself when she wore her latex top and it had started melting and coming out at the wrists. Brutal honesty never hurts.

After much clap clap clapping Viv came back alone saying the band had all headed for the beer and wine and she started playing 'Hookup Girl' during which the band appeared, one by one, to join in. I've never seen Viv play 'Hookup Girl' before so that was fun. She then went into 'Still England', one of my favourites, name-checking what she likes about England which bounced along nicely and in the musical break in the middle the glitter ball was turned on in a wow moment. I've not seen Viv play the whole song before, usually she ends at the musical interlude bit but this time continued. Viv took off her guitar and picked up pages printed with the names in the song and read them out as the bass turned into a disco riff for the remainder of the song, finishing with "Tosser, wanker, nutter, cunt" and the lights went off on the last word. Very dramatic.

Much more clap clap clapping and Viv came out again to tell us that she'd be doing a signing in three minutes. Cue me to scarper into the foyer to get a place in the queue to find I'm at the front, waiting for Viv to arrive. When she did she met a friend and was diverted so set herself up at the ice-cream stand! So I joined the hubbub around her to say hello.

When I met Viv I'm afraid I went all fan-boy. I saw she had the pages of names from 'Still England' so I asked if she'd sign the page that included Poly Styrene and she hunted through them to find that page and signed it for me. I said that I loved 'Disco Still England' and she seemed to be delighted when I told her I'd been at the 12Bar gig. I then asked for a hug to which she said of course so long as I didn't mind getting lube on me - as if I would. We hugged! 

Thanks Viv! Looking forward to seeing you again!

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

"... She's Not Working on The Checkout"

This afternoon my boss noticed my 'Poly Styrene' signature metal badge on my jacket, except she read it as 'polystyrene' with a puzzled face. I then had to explain who Poly was in increasing detail as she backed away realising that asking about my badge had opened the floodgates. Luckily this meant that my new, much younger, colleague could state that he knew about X-Ray Spex, had some songs by them and liked the current bunch of punk bands. Punk isn't a musical genre to me, it's part of my personal history.

That started me thinking about punk on the train home (and I've blogged about it before). Coincidentally, I was listening to Viv Albertine at the time.

As I left the train I remembered Chumbawamba's 'Girlsong' about Poly that includes the line, "She didn't understand why only boys were allowed to be in bands". She was brave. Poly started a band after seeing The Sex Pistols and started gigging. There weren't many women in bands and especially not fronting bands. Most women singers back then wore fancy frocks and sang ballads, playing the sex symbol and adding a bit of sparkle. They weren't rockers although there were always exceptions like the leather-clad bass player Suzi Quatro. Suzi opened doors and the punks kicked them wide open.

There was Poly and Siouxsie and The Slits all finding their own way, writing and performing their own music and creating the way for more women. There was Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde and Pauline Murray and, a little later, Pauline Black and The Selecter. Kate Bush was, of course, her own creation. They were powerful women and they probably didn't know the impact they would have. They just wanted to get up there and sing and play their songs.

Poly dressed in her own creations and sometimes dressed like her mum while Siouxsie wore stockings and underwear making it clear that it was her choice and you couldn't touch her. That was empowering and a powerful lesson. They dressed and acted as they wanted to, not because they fit in with a certain role. They were their own templates and role models because no-one had travelled there before. They did it for the first time.

I can't help but wonder where it went wrong, where women became objects again. Where Beyonce bounces her bum and Gaga wears a dress of steaks and Miley "twerks'. That's balanced, I suppose, by Amanda Palmer, Theoretical Girl and She Makes War.

The women of yesteryear did so much to carve a new path for women musicians and it's sad to see that restricted again. I was listening to Viv Albertine today (centre top in the photo below) and one of her songs, 'Confessions Of A MILF' includes the great line, "I chose being an artist over being a wife, I will have a lovely life".

This photo from 1980 shows Debbie Harry, Viv Albertine, Siouxsie and, in the front row, Chrissie Hynde, Poly Styrene and Pauline Black. Great heroes indeed!

The message of punk was always 'be yourself'. I always try to be me.

Monday, 14 October 2013

'Marvin Hamlisch: The Way He Was' by Dori Berinstein

The BFI London Film Festival is on at the moment and on Saturday we went to see a documentary about Marvin Hamlisch by Dori Berinstein. It's still a work in progress and Dori said she hadn't yet seen it all the way through - the editing is complete but still needs credits added (clearly illustrated by the [add credits here] captions in the credits at the end).

I won't claim to know much about Marvin Hamlisch - I know his name and that he was a film and stage composer but that's about it. I'd seen the revival of 'A Chorus Line' at The Palladium twice earlier this year and loved it and that was one of his shows, in reality his biggest show. So it was interesting to see all the film clips of him through the years, from a boy growing up in New York hailed as a child prodigy, winning three Oscars at the age of 29 and then never quite repeating that level of success despite other Broadway and film successes.

Did you know he wrote 'The Way We Were' for Barbra Streisand and 'Nobody Does It Better', the Bond theme by Carly Simon? That he used to be in a relationship with Carole Bayer Sager and his musical 'They're Playing Our Song' was about that relationship? That he wrote a musical staged by the National Theatre called 'Jean' about Jean Seberg (someone from the original cast was in the audience)?

He seems to have been incredibly prolific, throwing out songs and film scores here, there and everywhere. Winning three Oscars also meant he was on telly everywhere, talking and playing piano and some of the clips of him are from the Michael Parkinson show in the '70s and, when I saw them, it suddenly clicked where I'd seen him before - that show. He seemed to have an incredibly active life doing an incredibly wide range of things mostly involving music. Such as his work in later years to keep the American songbook alive by touring and playing with orchestras, staging shows for the White House and going into old peoples' homes to play for them. 

There were interviews with a wide range of people, people he'd collaborated with, people who'd starred in his musicals as well as friends and family. It was quite well rounded. It was also fascinating to learn that some of the songs in 'A Chorus Line' were written about and for the original cast members.

In the Q&A afterwards Dori explained that she tried to let Marvin tell his own story through the enormous amount of film footage of him over the years. That came across very strongly and was very effective. The questions were interesting and ended up with someone saying that they'd seen things about Marvin before that made him not like him (at which I cringed, a negative last question is deadly) but that Dori's film had made him change his mind (phew!).

The film will be released on DVD at some point so watch out for it if you're a Hamlisch fan.

Ray Davies at The Purcell Room - 'Americana'

On Saturday we went to see Ray Davies at the Purcell Room being interviewed about his new book, 'Americana', that tells the story of his relationship with America.

It opened with Ray doing a short reading from the book and then showing us a home-made film he'd pieced together on his computer. It's based largely on video clips he took during his Storyteller tour of America a couple of weeks after 9/11 when flights were routinely cancelled so he had to travel mainly by car. Travelling those vast distances on the road with only a driver showed him different aspects of the America he'd travelled so often with The Kinks in the air. It finished up in New Orleans a couple of years later where he'd settled to write but got shot instead.

It was quite fascinating in some respects, if only for the clips he'd chosen to show us, such as the many shots out of hotel bedrooms of the tall buildings everywhere, of driving into cities that all looked the same, of his hotel rooms. The film lasted for about half an hour and then out came Ray for an interview with John Wilson for about an hour, including some random questions from the audience.

I've been to quite a few of these 'in conversation with' things and usually the interviewer isn't terribly prepared or likes to voice their own thoughts and theories (yawn) rather than letting the interviewee talk (and it's them we're there to hear). In this case John Wilson did really well, relevant questions, keeping it flowing and picking some good audience questions.

He tried to get an honest answer about why The Kinks were banned from touring in America in the mid/late 60s and got as much of an answer as Ray is ever likely to give. That was all in the context of Ray writing many of his most English songs over the same period and whether that was a reaction against being banned from touring America. I think the conclusion was that it was since he tends to write about what's around him - which is one reason for going to New Orleans to write.

Some quite random bits of information came out in discussion, like Ray having dinner with Candy Darling and not realising that she was a he, meeting the Warhol people and the back room of CBGB's, and Wayne/Jayne County. He said that after 'Lola' he just seems to attract 'them'. And meeting Candy is not the inspiration for 'Lola' since the meeting was after it was a hit. I saw a film about Candy a few years ago if you're interested.

There was a quite long session on New Orleans and the shooting, him winding up in hospital and asking if he'd chase after the mugger again, to which he answered 'yes' since it was a fight or flight thing and his instinct in that situation was to fight. It was all quite fascinating but Ray managed to say a lot without really answering the question. He has his secrets and will dole out information when he chooses. He finished by teasing us with a new album for which all the songs are written.

Mr Davies was looking in good form, skinny as ever and, when he eventually turned up to sign books he was in his coat and scarf and with a glass of beer. There was a huge queue to get books signed and when it was my turn for a few seconds with him I asked whether there were any plans to record the 'Come Dancing' songs. His answer was that he'd love to. I said I'd seen it four times and also the concert version last year which perked him up a bit and he said it was a great cast to which I had to agree. It was a great cast with great songs and a good show. It should be staged again and recorded.

The book is now on my pile awaiting reading - my pile of rock autobiogs and biogs is growing so I should make a dent in it really...

Sunday, 13 October 2013

New Christmas Records 2013

I know it's early but I always like to hear about new Christmas records to add to my ever expanding collection. This year I'm really looking forward to Kim Wilde's 'Wilde Winter Songbook' which, for the track listing looks like a mix of seasonal standards and some new songs, including a new version of Kim's old hit 'Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree' (this time with Nik Kershaw).

Winter Wonderland (with Rick Astley)
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Winter Song
New Life
White Winter Hymnal (with Marty & Ricky Wilde)
Burn Gold
Song For Beryl
Let It Snow
Hey Mister Snowman
Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree (with Nik Kershaw)

I'm also looking forward to hearing some of these songs played live at Kim's Christmas Party at Shepherd's Bush on 21 December.

Other new records this year include 'A Mary Christmas' by Mary J Blige and 'Snow Globe' by Erasure.

No doubt there'll be more emerging as we get closer to Christmas.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

PolyFest at The Half Moon, 5 October 2013

Last night I went to PolyFest at The Half Moon in Putney, the long overdue tribute gig for Poly Styrene. Poly left us in 2011 so it's been a while coming but better late than never. I had no idea what to expect or how it would work with so many folks on the bill but it was for Poly and the proceeds were going to Cancer Research so I had to go.

I got there at about 8:30pm to see a big sign saying it was sold out (which is a good thing). I'd missed a few acts but, just as I went in, Diane Charlemagne was saying a few words about Poly and then gave a touching version of 'Electric Blue Monsoon', just her voice singing above the murmur of conversations and laughter. I sang along quietly.

More people arrived and the place got fuller so I grabbed a space near the stage only to find I was in the route to the stage when someone pushed past me saying 'sorry' only to see her go up the steps to the stage and realised it was Anita Harris. Yes, *the* Anita Harris from the 'Carry On' films and song and dance shows in the '60s and '70s and she's still going strong.

Anita said she'd never met Poly but admired her for opening doors for other singers and mentioned Siouxsie (which isn't quite accurate, but never mind) and said she was going to sing one of Poly's songs called 'Exploited' which had been specially arranged for her style by her pianist. Colour me puzzled at that point and then I realised she was singing a gentle version of 'I Live Off You'! I wonder if she sings it as part of her cabaret show? It worked really well and it was a delight to hear this raucous punk song tamed and given a new lease of life. Anita then did her version of 'Route 66' rocking out with just a piano accompaniment.

The evening was punctuated by various people getting up on the stage and doing short readings, sometimes with music and sometimes not, as well as the host getting up to ask where someone was and would they kindly come to the stage because they were due on. Youth was up and down laughing and posing for us. It wasn't quite shambolic but the DIY nature of it felt rather punk to me and, in that way, quite fitting.

Jona Lewie was on next, sitting behind the keyboard plonking away at a couple of songs that were fun enough but I couldn't see what the link to Poly might have been. I don't think he mentioned her either. His final song was 'You Will Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties' and it was nice to hear it played live for the first time, but then it went on and on. I stuck with it for about five minutes for the sake of Kirsty MacColl who was one of his backing singers 'dancing in a new way' on Top of the Pops long ago. Then I gave up and went to the toilet to escape, came out and it was still droning on, morphing into 'Seaside Shuffle' at one point (which he wrote yonks ago), queued at the bar and finally got a pint and it was *still* going on. Led Zep eat your heart out, Mr Lewie trumped you last night!

Next up was Jennie Bellestar and she gave us some serious rock moves on the stage in-between the seven or eight piece FFA Band including some Hare Krishna devotees - she seemed to be quite pleased that she was 'playing with the Krishnas' as she called it. She opened with the war cry of 'Identity' and flung herself around the stage, scarlet hair flying all over the place. She was in great voice and put her whole body into the song. Then we had a seriously muscular version of 'Wild Thing' before she spoke the immortal words, 'Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think OH BONDAGE, UP YOURS!' and she was off again, forcing us to sing along (which I did, obv). Well done Jennie, you did Poly proud!

The band was really good, solid guitars and drums with added horns to bring out the sax of the Spex sound. The FFA (Food For All) Band included some Krishna devotees (are they all devotees? I don't know) and they were great. The odd thing was that, despite playing raucous punk songs, they looked peaceful and gave off a feeling of calm and happiness which isn't the usual vibe coming off a rock stage. It was a bit strange but very appropriate.

As the crowd cleared a bit when Jennie left the stage I glanced over and saw a profile with an unmistakeable smile and there was Celeste, Poly's daughter. A minute or so later she was invited up on stage and said she was going to sing a song about Brixton where her mum grew up, just five miles from where we were. She sang 'Warrior In Woolworths' unaccompanied, just her voice, and she sounded excellent. I hope someone recorded her. She smiled at the applause and stepped off the stage back into her place in the audience as people came on to set up for the next act.

Next was Kevin Rowland and Madeleine Hyland who did a couple of new Dexy's songs which got a good reaction from the crowd. The final song was, of course, the perennial 'Come On Eileen'. That was rather predictable but got everyone singing and dancing along - let's face it, everybody knows that song. I'd seen Kevin in the crowd when I first got there so it's good that he was mingling and chatting but I've got no idea what his link to Poly might have been but it's good that he was on the bill since, from the reaction of the crowd, some people were there to see him.

During the break after the stage cleared I saw Celeste again, still at the front of the stage chatting to people and I put my shy self away, put on my brave face and went up to say hello and say how much I'd enjoyed her version 'Warrior'. We chatted for a minute or so and she asked where I lived and when I told her she said it wasn't far from Brixton that she'd been singing about. I told her I liked and had downloaded her songs with The Tabloid Queens and she said that was just a hobby really. She kindly let me take a photo of her and I did the terribly British thing of shaking her hand. Why do I always do that?

The stage was cleared for the final performance of the night - Doctor & The Medics. Now, all I know about the good Doctor is that he had a big hit with his version of 'Spirit In The Sky' in the '80s. That's it. So imagine my surprise when he, his guitarist and bass player (no drums) launched into a hard rocking version of 'You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)' followed by 'White Wedding' which were pretty fab. I was very impressed with the bass player who kept the same rhythm going across both songs without stopping. He got bonus points for wearing bright red tartan trousers in contrast to the Doctor's black and white gear and the guitarist's black.

The Doctor said he didn't know Poly but that his first live gig back in the day was seeing The Who, his second was The Jam (who he said were a Who tribute band) and his third was X-Ray Spex and they were a breath of fresh air.

He brought on Charlie O'Connor to sing the new version of 'Germ Free Adolescents' she recorded as the tribute single from the event that went on sale on 5 October. Glen Matlock played on the single but wasn't at PolyFest. Charlie was on the far side of the stage and here's the best photo I managed to get of her. I quite like the new version - it's not an imitation of the original - and you can listen to it on Soundcloud and then download it from iTunes, Amazon or your favourite downloady site.

The good Doctor then brought on Anita Harris to sing along to the final song of the evening, his own 'Spirit In The Sky' of course. I couldn't hear Anita in all that noise but I shook her hand when she came off stage into the audience again. And, y'know what? Doctor & The Medics were great fun! Raunchy, jittery guitar, solid bass and songs we all know - I wouldn't mind seeing them play live again.

And there we have it, the first - and hopefully not the last - PolyFest! I didn't see Tessa Pollitt but I've seen from Facebook photos that she was there. It was an odd line-up, particularly since there were no original Spex there and few people seemed to have really known Poly but it was fun nonetheless. It would've been nice to see some of the first wave of punks there, even if just to share some memories of Poly rather than play or sing. I'd also expected more Poly songs to be covered rather than people doing their own stuff - some songs from 'Generation Indigo' would have been good since that album is full of great pop songs.

Stars of the evening for me (other than Celeste) were Jennie Bellestar and Doctor & The Medics with Anita Harris coming a close third. Jennie was very fab and threw herself into it on stage, commenting that she hoped Poly was watching. At the end when Jennie came out to say goodbye to people and head off I had to go up to her to say how much I'd enjoyed her performance.

According to the Half Moon website, the gig was going to be filmed and recorded for release as 'The Day The World Turned Dayglo' so watch this space. The proceeds from the CD/DVD will go to Food For All, a Hare Krishna charity that feeds homeless people. I hope it is released so we can all see and hear Celeste and Jennie and Diane, the Doctor and Charlie, and, yes, Anita. Well done people!

I hope you were watching Poly.