Category: art

The Velvet Underground & Nico

By Daniel Margrain

The music and the synthesis of ideas that the Velvet Underground represented broke new ground in the 1960s. The group didn’t produce ‘songs’ that were indicative of popular music of the time but rather they were Freudian expressions of a lust for deviant but seductive behaviour; they were exotic, decadent and perverse fantasies.

This was allied to a form of hyper-urban realism that emerged from a combination of traditions – Pop artGerman ExpressionismFrench Existentialism and La Monte Young’s Minimilism. The group were about as far apart from their contemporaries as British Music Hall is to American Hardcore.

The groups debut, their supreme masterpiece, The Velvet Underground And Nico (1967)Velvet Underground and Nico.jpg, was recorded in two days in the spring of 1966 and released in January of the following year. Andy Warhol produced the album, managed the group and created the now iconic banana album cover artwork.

Lou Reed composed the melodies, wrote the lyrics and ‘drone strummed’ his rhythm guitar. John Cale arranged the sound and created the avant-garde atmospheres with his innovative use of a viola and keyboards interspersed with his bass playing. Maureen Tucker played the drums with an obsessive and frenzied, yet exotic, tribal repetitiveness and Stirling Morrison’s rhythm and blues or country-influenced guitar playing kept the sound grounded in the style of The Byrds.

All of this was embellished by the icy vocals of Nico who sang lead on three of the album’s tracks – the cold, spectral, autumnal odes of Femme Fatale, All Tomorrow’s Parties, I’ll Be Your Mirror – and back-up on Sunday Morning, all of them masterpieces.

But the songs Nico had no part in are equally, if not more mesmerizing – in particular, Black Angel’s Death Song, the percussive boogie of Waiting For My Man, the orgasmic chaos of Heroin, and the dissonant tribalism of European Son. If I had to pick a standout, it would be the Indian raga-imbued and decadent Venus In Furs which, in my view, is one of the masterpieces of all rock. Judge for yourselves:

But to single out one track for praise on an album where there is no weak link, is to do the album an injustice. The truth is, each individual piece on the album is a masterpiece in its own right culminating in a work that transcends the sum of its individual parts. All of the songs are immersed in an atmosphere that’s dark and oppressive but beguiling, epic and cool. It’s an album that fuses music and words in a manner that perfectly captures the tension of modernist metropolitan reality in all of its dark and decadent secrets. This manifests, as one critic puts it:

in sexual fetishes and cathartic sadism, in latent orgasms and unnerving noises;and in the living contrast between the urban ways of Reed and the patrician ways of Nico, between Berlin in the 30s and the 60s in New York, between the subculture of crisis and that of the apocalypse. The seduction of the album is derived not only from the quantity of ideas in it, but from the fusion of so many strong artistic personalities, all directed by Lou Reed, who functions as catalyst.”

The overriding feeling one gets after listening to this album is of a group who set out to produce a creative work of art as opposed to a commercial product. In these less enlightening times, that’s a legacy worth preserving. Arguably, punk aesthetics, alternative art rock and indie rock were born the moment the Velvet Underground walked into a recording studio. The influence of the Velvet’s debut can be heard in almost everything interesting that followed – from the new wave movement of the late 1970s through to the post-punk and shoegazing movements of the 1980s and 1990s.

Emerging from the UK indie scene generation of this latter period were the bands signed to the seminal Postcard record label, many of whom would not have started a band if it were not for this album. That’s an illustration of how significant The Velvet Underground And Nico was to my generation. But this is not only true of my generation but subsequent generations. It was Brian Eno who famously stated that while The Velvet Underground & Nico initially only sold 30,000 copies, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”

 

Neil Young: Contrarian & genius

By Daniel Margrain
Photo (c) Joel Bernstein 1970.Rarely seen original uncropped photo of the front cover of Neil Young’s classic album, After The Gold Rush sent to PopSpots from Joel Bernstein – which includes Graham Nash.

Emerging from the idealism of the 1960s, Neil Young’s 1975 solemn and meditative masterpiece, ‘Tonight’s The Night’ is a work of immense, but at the same time, subtle beauty borne out of a sense of loss and redemption. The warmth, humour and overriding sense of raw humanity and vulnerability depicted by Young’s rich lyricism, crackling vocals and the all-round brilliant but understated musicianship, touches the deep recesses of the psyche in a very profound way. This is arguably Neil Young’s most solidly consistent and most timeless work from his most creatively fertile period.

This is not to say that for every Tonight’s The Night or Rust Never Sleeps there are not an equal amount of duds among his prolific body of work. Nevertheless, the sheer quantity of brilliant songs that he has crafted over a fifty year period welded to his astounding musicianship and incredible insights and intuitions, means that Neil Young ranks among the greatest and most influential of singer-songwriters and artists in all of rock. Certainly, in my view, Neil can be added to an esteemed list that includes Bob Dylan, Lou Reed & the Velvet’s, The Doors, The Stooges, Captain Beefheart, Roxy Music, Kevin Ayers and Pink Floyd.

In my opinion, rarely do journalists and critics satisfactorily capture the essence of Neil Young’s art in all its contrarian complexity. 

Aliens land. They’ve traveled from some distant planet with a specific mission: to find out what this ‘rock and roll’ stuff is all about. Through some curious coincidence, they find you. “What is rock and roll?” they demand, rayguns drawn. You begin to sweat. Still, there is really only one question you need to ask yourself:

“Which Neil Young album do I play them first?”

This is no hyperbole; Neil Young is the personification of rock and roll in human form. From his humble beginnings as a surf rocker in the Squires to his tenure in Hall Of Fame acts Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, to his most recent blitzkrieg Psychedelic Pill, Neil has spent a career as the embodiment of artistry despite fierce resistance. This iron-willed devotion to the Muse has not come without a price, however: While Neil’s successes have mostly flown in the face of prevailing music biz wisdom, his uncompromising nature has earned him almost as many failures, failures that should have sunk him several times over. His unpredictability and star-chamber business practices have often made him a pariah; his impulsive spirit and mood swings would frequently estrange his fellow musicians and most ardent supporters. Even more than Dylan, Neil Young has made a career of being consistently inconsistent.

As an architect of what we now consider ‘underground music’ there is no peer: For every Great Indie Moment of the past thirty years, there is a Neil Young song correlative. Wanna hear ground zero for Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs? See “Journey Through The Past.” The raw-nerve humanity in the songs of Jason Molina? Check out “On The Beach.” The primary influence on J Mascis’s wild, feedback-laden guitar playing, or his reedy, cracked vocal style? That’d be “Cortez The Killer” and “Mellow My Mind,” respectively. Alt country? “Harvest.” I could do this all day. Of course, it works both ways: Neil Young’s decision to release 1991’s Arc, a 35-minute collage of feedback and noise, seems directly inspired by his run-ins with Sonic Youth, while the Pearl Jam-assisted Mirror Ball would find the newly-sired Godfather Of Grunge an awestruck but reluctant don of the alternative rock revolution.

Neil Young has never lent his music to a commercial. He was the Canadian hippie that publicly supported Reagan (despite the fact that he was not eligible to vote), only to record an entire album arguing for the impeachment of George W. Bush. He vainly made movies that made Cocksucker Blues look like Double Indemnity. His autobiography depicts a man more interested in model trains, vintage cars, and cutting-edge technology than his legacy as a rock star, which seems to bore and trouble him.

This, at least, is consistent: As early as 1966, the reluctant star penned “Out Of My Mind” for Buffalo Springfield’s debut album, a song containing the lyrics “All I hear are screams/ from outside the limousines/ that are taking me out of my mind.” He introduced himself to the world with songs about epileptic seizures, tormented small-town girls, and the rent that always seems to be due. His peers may have been enjoying the nectar of flower power, but Neil’s acute perception allowed him to see the darkness just below the surface.

It is easy to view Neil as a cranky contrarian who takes his gifts and fortunes for granted, but this is an oversimplification. It is equally tempting to define him alongside similarly protean artists from Bowie to Gaga, but this, too, is specious. The genre experiments of other artists often indicate an identity crisis, or an attempt to recreate oneself in the hopes of appealing to increasingly fickle market forces. It could be argued that Neil’s shape-shifting is motivated by the exact opposite reasons: trends, expectations, and market forces be damned, he doesn’t feel like making another country-rock record right now. Whether his imagination leads him to Greendale or to Goldrush, it’s all the same to Neil Young. This is why even his most seemingly impersonal, comically overambitious leaps of faith contain, at their core, an honesty — a humanity.

His music may be frequently peevish and outwardly rebellious, but at heart, Neil’s a moralist. His fierce loyalty to talented-but-toxic characters like Bruce Palmer, Rusty Kershaw and Danny Whitten is an example of a probity that undermines a reputation for hardness. Other examples can be found within the songs themselves, full of lessons: Sooner or later it all gets real. Only love can break your heart. Don’t be denied. Don’t wait till the break of day. Time fades away. I feel I must disclose that Neil Young has created some of the most important music of my life. A tattoo on my right wrist reads ‘WWNYD,’ elevating Neil to the status of Jesus Christ, and a promotional poster of Neil at Massey Hall hangs over my writing desk. In some ways, this makes me both the best and worst person for the job of ranking Neil’s albums; I am, and shall always be, a Neil Young apologist. 

Piero Scaruffi wrote this insightful analysis about Neil:

Perhaps no other artist in the history of rock music has produced so many distinguished works in so many different styles and over so many years as Neil Young. The spectral landscape of Last Trip To Tulsa, off his debut album, Neil Young (1968) Introduced a minstrel lost in an unexplored moral universe. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) elaborated on that theme and achieved a formidable synthesis of “voices “in stately, extended, psychedelic, hard-folk ballads such as Cowgirl In The Sand and Down By The River.

The mellow and melodic folk-rock and country-rock of After The Gold Rush (1970) and Harvest (1972) lent musical credibility to the apocalyptic angst of Tonight’s the Night (1975), recorded in 1973 and On The Beach (1974). The former, perhaps his masterpiece, was the ultimate testament of the post-hippy depression, an elegiac concept that sounded like a mass for the dead. The electrifying lyricism of Zuma (1975) and Like A Hurricane (1977), the anthemic hysteria of Rust Never Sleeps (1979), the company fresh collapsing values ​​of Freedom (1989) and the obscure meditation of Sleeps With Angels (1994) continued his life-long moral crusade.

Neil Young constitutes with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen the great triad of “moral” voices of American popular music. As is the case with the other two, Young’s art is, first and foremost, a fusion of music and words that identifies with his era’s zeitgeist. Unlike the others, though, Young is unique in targeting the inner chaos of the individual that followed the outer chaos of society [My emphasis]. While Dylan “transfers” his era’s events into a metaphysical universe, and Springsteen relates the epic sense of ordinary life, Young carries out through more complex psychological operations that, basically, bridges the idealism of the hippy communes and the neuroses of the urban population.

His voice, lyrics, melodies and his guitar style, compose a message of suffering and redemption that, at its best, transcends in hallucination, mystical vision, philosophical enlightenment, while still grounded in a context that is fundamentally a hell on earth [My emphasis]. The various aspects of Young’s career (the bucolic folk-singer, the liberal militant, the post-hippie moralist, the apocalyptic guru, the universal pessimist, the melancholy loner, the alienated rocker) are merely stages of a long calvary, which is both individual and collective. Young did to the lyrical song what Dylan did to the protest song. Just like Dylan wed the emphasis of Whitman’s poetry and the optimism of Kennedy’s era with the themes of public life, Young wed Emerson’s humanism and the pessimism of the post Kennedy era with the themes of private life.

On top of this, Young invented the distorted, cacophonous, nightmarish style of guitar playing that would influence the grunge generation. Young’s angst is unique in his schizophrenia, which runs at several levels. First and foremost, one has to deal with the live / studio dichotomy of his career.

Charged with the sonic equivalent of a nuclear reaction, the “live” Young albums seem to come from a different artist, a musical terrorist, a true punk. Within the studio albums, one has to deal with another dichotomy: the pretty, linear, smooth country-inspired ballad, and the ugly, noisy, acid-inspired jam. These two modes rarely coexist: they alternate, they compete for control of Young’s career (and mind?), Each studio album being dominated by either of the two.

David Bowie: sound, not vision

By Daniel Margrain

The eulogizing in the media of David Bowie since his death last week has predictably been widespread. The consensus view is that Bowie was a trailblazer of musical trends and pop fashion, an innovator and visionary, an artist of unparalleled significance within the musical landscape of rock and roll and electronic music. Adam Sweeting in the Guardian, said of Bowie: “His capacity for mixing brilliant changes of sound and image underpinned by a genuine intellectual curiosity is rivalled by few in pop history.”

The obituary section of the Telegraph, described Bowie as “a rock musician of rare originality and talent”, while Jon Pareles in the New York Times claimed that “Mr.Bowie was his generation’s standard-bearer for rock as theater: something constructed and inflated yet sincere in its artifice, saying more than naturalism could”.…According to Pareles, “He also pushed the limits of “Fashion” and “Fame,”

Mark Beaumont of the NME appeared to go one further by claiming that Bowie’s influence on popular culture:

“simply cannot be overstated. From psychedelic folk rock to glam rock, plastic soul, avant garde experimentalism and beyond, Bowie’s relentless innovation and reinvention was one of the great driving forces of modern music and his impact reached into fashion, performance art, film and sexual politics. While his songs, consistently accessible no matter how difficult the style he explored, inspired countless musicians across a vast tapestry of rock music which he helped weave as he went.”

On the morning following Bowie’s death, and in echoing the kinds of platitudes of superficial pop stars like Madonna and Lady Ga Ga, LBC host James O’Brien devoted half of his three hour programme eulogizing about the alleged innovator and genius, inviting fans to phone in and reminisce about the pop star. With an apparent straight face, O’Brien, a former music critic, stated that Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory was “probably the greatest rock album of all-time.”

These kinds of comments have been the excepted wisdom in mainstream critical circles since Bowie hit super stardom in 1972 with the album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, a work that in many ways came to define him. Under the tag line, David Bowie: Visionary singer and songwriter who for five decades exerted a huge influence on pop and rock, Chris Salewicz reminded his readers of the historical continuum that underpinned the iron clad critical consensus:  “The man is a stone genius,” effused New York’s Village Voice, in the parlance of the times, “and for those who have been waiting for a new Dylan, Bowie fits the bill. He is a prophet, a poet – and a vaudevillian. Like Dylan, his breadth of vision and sheer talent could also exercise a profound effect on a generation’s attitudes.”

In Britain, the critical acclaim bestowed on Bowie is arguably only second to the Beatles. But in the cold light of day, to what extent does the man and his work stand up to proper investigative critical scrutiny? The independent music critic, Piero Scaruffi, whose words I transcribed and edited below, offers some invaluable (and corrective) insights into the mythology that surrounds the man, his music and his art. This is Scaruffi’s critique of Bowie. It’s a critique that I share:

“David Bowie turned marketing into the essence of his art. All great phenomena of popular music, from Elvis Presley to the Beatles, had been, first and foremost, marketing phenomena (just like Coca Cola and Barbie before them); However, Bowie  turned it into an art of its own. Bowie with the science of marketing becomes art; art and marketing had become one.

There were intellectuals who had proclaimed this theory in terms rebelliousness. Bowie was, in many ways, the heir, no matter how perverted, of Andy Warhol’s pop art and of the underground culture of the 1960s. He adopted some of the most blasphemous issues and turned them upside down to make them precisely what they had been designed to fight: a commodity.

Bowie was a protagonist of his times [who] embodied the quintessence of artificial art, raising futility to paradigm, focusing on the phenomenon rather than the content, and who made irrelevant the relevant, and, thus, was is the epitome of everything that is wrong with rock music.

Each element of his art was the emblem of a true artistic movement; However, the ensemble of these emblems constituted no more than a puzzle of symbols, no matter how intriguing, a dictionary of terms rather than a poem, and, at best, a documentary of the cultural trends of his time. As a chronicler, the cause of the sensation was the show, not the music.

In fusing theatre, mime, film, visual art, literature and music, the showman Bowie was undoubtedly in sync with the avant-garde. However, Bowie merely recycled what had been going on for years in the British underground, in what in particular had been popularized by the psychedelic bands of 1967. And he turned it into a commodity: whichever way you look at his oeuvre, this is the real merit of it.

Arguably, his most famous album, Ziggy Stardust (1972) represented a relative quantum leap forward from what went before. The culmination of a behind the scenes refining of his image by a new manager, his signing to a new and more powerful label, the utilization of a much more sophisticated production and, with the talents of Rick Wakeman on keyboards and Mick Ronson on guitar at his disposal, Bowie’s “art” represented the peak of the fad for rock operas.

The album is nevertheless a cartoonish melodrama that recycles cliches of decadent and sci-fi literature. Its popularity was due as much to the choreographic staging as it was to the music. The latter relies on magniloquent pop ballads (such as Five Years , the piano-heavy Lady Stardust , almost a send-up of Warren Zevon, the shrill gospel hymn Ziggy Stardust, Moonage Daydream (with a folkish sax solo reminiscent of the Hollywood Argyles and a shower of strings), arranged in such a manner to make the baroque ‘Tommy’ by the Who sound amateurish.

Bowie’s melodic skills shone in the grand soaring refrains of Starman and Rock And Roll Suicide, that were de facto tributes to the old tradition of Tin Pan Alley. The album displayed the half-hearted stylistic variety of latter-day Beatles albums, from the soul-jazz tune Soul Love to the martial folk-blues shuffle It Aint ‘Easy. Hang On To Yourself is a whirling boogie dance as is Suffragette City. The latter, in particular is a quintessentially hysterical breathless Who-style boogie and perhaps his career standout.

The track exudes the languid existentialism of the ballads, confronting Bowie’s erotic futuristic cabaret from the vantage point of teenage angst. Certainly the whole worked well as a postmodernist analysis of show business’ cliches. Credit for the production quality goes to Ken Scott (who Bowie defined as “my George Martin”) and new guitarist Mick Ronson: all the arrangements were designed from them (the string arrangements are all Ronson). Scott did all the mixing alone.

Bowie’s “heartbreaking” vocals were so exaggerated that they sounded like a parody of sorts. Ditto the kitschy arrangements. The concept was, first and foremost, a caricature. By fusing Scott Walker’s melodramatic style, Jacques Brel’s weltschmerz, Zen mysticism, McLuhan’s theory of the medium, Andy Warhol’s multimedia pop art and Oscar Wilde’s fin de siecle decadence, Bowie coined the ultimate revisionist and self-reflective act of the most revisionist and self-reflective decade.

For better and for worse, Ziggy marked the end of the myth of rock sincerity and spontaneity: the star was no longer a teenager among many, a “working-class everyman,” and, above all, the star was no longer “himself” but rather a calculating inventor of artificial stances and attitudes. His stance indirectly mocked and ridiculed the messianic aura of rock music.

Not much of a musical genius, but certainly a terrific showman, diligent student of Hollywood’s mythology, living impersonation of the Gothic iconography (Dorian Gray) and of the Parnassian iconography (Pierrot), Bowie owed ​​little to his frail and easy compositions: he owed ​​almost everything to the “image” that he had created and was nurturing with non-musical factors.

Although the music was almost always banal and embarrassing, the scene in which it played out was at least funny while at the same time solemn and murky. Bowie’s world was a frightening one, devastating and senseless, populated by outcasts and alienated human wrecks. Bowie’s vocal tone resembled an existential horror that could modulate detachment, cynicism and yearning.

Bowie had rediscovered the “crooning” of pop and soul singers of the ’50s, perhaps a less innovative style of singing that one could have imagined in 1975, that nevertheless also managed to combine a form of cabaret in the service of the theatre of Brecht. Mindful of the dramatic experience and clearly with Lou Reed in mind, Bowie consciously evoked “Brecht-ian” alienation that was fashionable in those years. The songs of Bowie deliberately calculated a striking contrast between music, text and image which would lead the public to think critically about “illusions” as presented.

Inspired by the alienated rock of Reed, the Dionysian like performance of Iggy Pop and the meticulous electronics of Brian Eno, Bowie forged a new type of ritual mass that paradoxically conceptually morphed into a kind of kitsch Hollywood entertainment. Skilled at riding fashions, as opposed to creating them, Bowie always arrived one or two years after someone else had invented the phenomenon (for example, decadent rock, soul-rock, electronics).

As with the Beatles before him, Bowie knew how to best present the phenomenon to the masses via the bourgeoisie media and turn it into an international “fashion”. Essentially, Bowie’s major contribution to the annals of rock music was his popularization of the notion of the eclectic and refined musician. Many other rock musicians have explored and referenced pop art, literature and painting in a more thorough and original way than Bowie but have not garnered the critical recognition that came his way.

Bowie was said to have written the first “space ballad” but space-rock had been invented a few years earlier. Before the release of Space Odyssey, the Rolling Stones had recorded 2000 Light Years and the inventors of space-rock, Pink Floyd had, in 1967, released Interstellar Overdrive and Anno Domini. Moreover, long before the media had coined Bowie as being the inventor of the ‘glam’ concept, Mick Jagger, and many other contemporaries of the period, had been sexually ambiguous and had worn make-up.

Also decadent rock had long preceded Bowie with the likes of the Velvet Underground and the Doors. Bowie’s “uniqueness” was that his antics were the first to be publicized by the media. As often happens with the pop star, Bowie has falsely been attributed with creating the merits of an entire population of musicians. One of the most overrated artists of his generation, Bowie’s sound was largely Visconti’s (or Eno’s). Without that Sound, Bowie was a second-rate pop vocalist singing for a second-rate audience. 

For more analysis and reviews, go to: http://www.scaruffi.com/

 

Under The Bridge with The Magic Band

By Daniel Margrain

Review of The Magic Band, Under The Bridge, Chelsea, London, Friday, November 20. 

It was a bitterly cold night in west London. I had exited the tube at West Brompton and hadn’t taken into account the 20 minute walk to the venue. Yes, I should have got off at Fulham Broadway which, as I later discovered, was two minutes away but I didn’t know that at the time and neither, apparently, did the venues web writers.

The band were due on stage for the first of their two sets at 8.15 and it was already eight. I didn’t have the faintest idea where I was going. On leaving the station I approached the first person I saw and asked him for directions. I was directed the wrong way. I double checked that I hadn’t put on my West Ham top by mistake and that I wasn’t humming the ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ tune under my breath.

Apart from the one time I had ventured to the Bridge with my nephew, the only other time I had visited the Stamford dump predated the Abramovitch era by years at a time in history when part of Stamford Bridge was literally at the point of collapsing, which, if memory serves me correctly, was the section of the ground near the infamous Shed end.

We lost 2-1 that day and I got soaked through to the skin. The Russian mafia money has of course transformed a crumbling ground into a shiny stadium but I wasn’t going to ever get there walking in the wrong direction.

Eventually realizing that I had been given a ride up the wrong proverbial garden path, I turned around and began pacing frantically in the opposite direction passing the tube station on my right. I hit some lights, did a right and carried on walking for another 15 minutes until I reached the bright neon lights of Under The Bridge which was located, as you might of guessed, under the stadium.

Propped up against a wall by the entrance to the venue stood the author Will Self who was chugging on an e cigarette. I took that as a sign that the band had not yet taken to the stage, so I relaxed. You enter the venue proper by a short narrow passage, the walls on either side are plastered with various framed photos of legendary, and not so legendary, artists that reminded me of the kind of set up they had at Dingwalls in Camden in the 1980s.

Numerous photos of this nature were dotted throughout the venue clearly modelled on the kinds of Blues bars dotted throughout America – open and spacious with a semi-circular design and a raised perimeter section where the bar and comfortable looking stools were located. These faced down towards an impressive stage that was easily visible from wherever you stood.

The omens were looking good. This was certainly one of, if not the, best music venues of its size that I had the pleasure of frequenting and was clearly evidence of criminal money being put to good use. I grabbed myself a bottle of pear cider at the bar and then found a suitable position stage left by a circular pillar.

No sooner had I got comfortable when I was approached by a guy who looked to be his mid to late 60s who proceeded to give me an ear bashing about how he had seen the original Magic Band with the Captain back in the late 1960s and had subsequently seen the group play live in its various incarnations throughout the years.

I have to admit that the gig which was shortly to unfold before my eyes left me with a feeling of trepidation especially as my new found mate was praising the band so much. Since I had deliberately set out to avoid seeing any of their live performances on you tube or reading any of their reviews, I had no idea what to expect.

About seven or eight years ago I had seen The Electric Prunes at Camden’s Underworld only to have wished that I hadn’t had too much to dream the previous night. The gig was a disaster and my memories of the times I had listened in total awe to the bands records had been forever tainted by what I had witnessed live that night.

If ever there was a case for a band calling it a day, the Prunes, sadly, were it. Of course, for every Electric Prune there is an Arthur Lee and Love, so it’s far from necessarily being the case that all bands from the 60’s turn out to be shocking 30 or 40 years down the line.

However, the more my new found companion raved about The Magic Band, the more apprehensive I became and the more I began to think that they might not reach the level beyond that of a tribute band. He told me he last saw the group at the Garage in Islington in 2011 and described the gig as one of the greatest experiences of his life.

My expectations were now being raised whether I wanted this to be the case or not. I decided that it was best just to go with the flow, take whatever comes my way and ride the crest of the wave along with 700 others.

I’ll lay my cards on the table. I first heard Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band back in 1980 on the John Peel Show. The album Peel played to death that year was ‘Doc At The Radar Station’. Peel was a long standing fan of Beefheart and ‘Doc’ represented the rebirth of the man following his creative fallow period during the early 1970s after having arrived in England.

As an impressionable young man I regarded somebody of the stature of Peel as an authority as to what was ‘good’ and ‘cool’. And for Peel, the Captain reigned supreme. He was the Godfather of post-punk and consequently most of the younger generation of bands worth listening to at the time were influenced by Don Van Vliet.

To be honest, at that time, I didn’t understand the music of the Captain because I hadn’t heard anything like it before. Because I didn’t understand it, I didn’t really like it but pretended to because it was cool to like Beefheart and most of the bands I liked referenced him so I got to thinking he must be good.

Nevertheless, I felt as though there was potentially something interesting in the music to explore but I just wasn’t at that moment ready to explore it. But given time, I could be educated, through repeated listens, to appreciate him, just like Peel, John Lydon and Mark E Smith did.

If John Peel had championed him and played him he must be good, I thought. I remember Peel used to regularly play a lifelong hero of mine on his show by the name of Neil Percival Young. But I remember thinking how can it be possible to like Neil Young and Captain Beefheart?

I tried to like the tracks off ‘Doc’ Peel used to play, but couldn’t get to grips with all those off-kilter demented psychedelic-blues rhythms, manic growls and weird lyrics. Then I got to seeing the Fall play at Totnes Civic Hall in 1981 and everything from that moment on fell into place.

The next day, I went into Castle Records in Torquay and to my surprise, I found ‘Doc At The Radar Station’ among the piles of albums. I took it home, put it on the turntable and everything clicked. Don’s cover art work also somehow started to make sense.

I used to play Neil Young loud but turned the volume down for ‘Doc’ because I thought the sound of the record might of alarmed the rest of the house. I’m happy to say that the great man still has that affect today which is as it should be.

Thereafter I began to check out the Captain’s back catalogue and haven’t looked back since. Some 34 years later, I stood cider in hand, looking at the Under The Bridge stage as the lights dimmed and the band hit the stage. Sadly, John “Drumbo” French is the only original member remaining from the band.

French took to his established role as drummer for a couple of songs while also playing the clarinet and harmonica. As expected, French is the glue that holds the rest of the band together but he is aided by brilliant younger musicians, namely guitarists Eric Klerks and Max Kutner, keyboardist Brian Havey and drummer Andrew Niven – all of whom stepped up to the plate admirably.

As one would expect from band members taking on the complex rhythms and odd time signatures that typify Beefheart’s music, the playing throughout was immense and I just couldn’t help but marvel at the musician’s timing and the manner in which they gelled as a tight unit.

Kutner was the perfect foil for Klerks and the drumming was exemplary. The interplay between band members was awesome. Amazingly, French seemed to hit all the right vocal notes and to my ears his range is almost as strong as Beefheart’s. No one can command the stage like the Captain but that’s not to say that French didn’t made a pretty good fist of translating his stage theatrics while adding a personality that was all his own.

In that sense the performance didn’t come across as a tribute act, but on the contrary, highlighted just how relevant the music of Beefheart still is to contemporary audiences, the age group of which crossed the spectrum. On the whole the set list was impressive although for me some songs didn’t quite work.

I could have done without ‘Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles’ and ‘Tropical Hot Dog Night’, for example which are just too conventional sounding for any serious Beefheart fan. ‘Click Clack’ from the underrated ‘Spotlight Kid’ and ‘Suction Prints’ were revelations, as was, of course, ‘Moonlight On Vermont’ and ‘Hair Pie Bake’ from Beefheart’s supreme masterpiece, ‘Trout Mask Replica’.

The main highlights were performed during the second set – ‘Stealing Softly Through Snow’ and the tour de force, ‘Electricity’. ‘The relatively obscure ‘Glider’ and the rip roaring ‘Big Eyed Beans From Venus’ from ‘Clear Spot’ wrapped up proceedings on what was a remarkable and unforgettable night.

Why Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ still resonates today.

By Daniel Margrain

Commodification and objectification, concomitant to the growth of consumerism in modern society, is the fuel to the engine that drives capitalism on. As I explained in a previous post, the social pressures on young women to conform to certain media expectations that capitalism places upon them and from which these processes are manifested, is immense. As I will outline below, Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – arguably the greatest piece of art produced in the 20th century – challenged this manifestation of capitalism during the early stages of its development. I will show how the cultural significance of the painting still resonates today.

Les Demoiselles

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is the most famous examples of cubism. It is an oil painting on canvas begun by Picasso in late 1906 and completed in the summer of 1907. It is eight feet tall, seven feet eight inches wide, and has hung since 1937 in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907 by Pablo Picasso

In this painting, Picasso abandoned all known form and representation of traditional art. He used distortion of the female body and geometric forms in an innovative way, which challenge the expectation that paintings will offer idealized representations of female beauty. It also shows the influence of African art on Picasso and is said to be a reaction to Henri Matisse‘s Le bonheur de vivre and Blue Nude.

Its resemblance to The Large Bathers of Paul Cezanne, Statue Oviri of Gauguin and Opening of the Fifth Seal of El Greco has been broadly talked about by critics. When it first exhibited in 1916, the painting was regarded as immoral. According to art critic, Leo Steinberg, the reversed gaze, that is, the fact that the figures look directly at the viewer, as well as the idea of the self-possessed woman, no longer there solely for the pleasure of the male gaze, may be traced back to Olympia, 1863 of Manet.

The critic Jonathan Jones described the painting as “marking the birth of modern art” in the sense that it dispensed with the portrayal of the naturalistic or the ‘realism’ as developed during the Renaissance. Modern art either distorts physical appearances or abandons them altogether. This is not to say, of course, that it was possible for the Renaissance painters to ‘realistically’ depict things that do not in reality exist like angels.

The point is, depictions of say, breasts and faces in art during this epoch, were easily recognizable as faces and breasts. Picasso was the first to break from the Renaissance tradition in which a great deal of attention was paid to detail, craft and specific skills – factors which were widely regarded as the true sign of quality.

Although it could be said that impressionism marked a shift in the emphasis on the premium of these ideas as being the marker for great art, it was Les Demoiselles that provided the art world with its decisive break. In 1907 it would have looked like not just a move away from the traditional skills, but a full scale assault on them.

Up until the 19th century, harmony, form and certain subject matter were regarded as the aesthetic marker for beauty in art and anything that didn’t conform to this rationalization was deemed to be of a lower order. Think of A Rake’s Progress, a series of eight paintings by 18th-century English artist William Hogarth, as an for example of this.

In Les Demoiselles, not only does Picasso not attempt to make the women ‘beautiful’ but, by the conventional standards of the day, his use of the African masks, insists on their ugliness. Les Demoiselles was the painting that was the starting point for the development of the revolutionary art of the 20th century.

The significance of Picasso’s innovative painting should be viewed within the wider context of modernist culture as a whole, understood as the emergence of the technological innovations that typified the industrial revoultion, the artistic break from the aristocratic traditions that existed more or less until the early 20th century, and the social revolutions of the period that were linked to them.

Les Demoiselles fits neatly into this schema within the context in which the impressionists and the post-impressionists were all met with derision. The development, and first mass production of, the automobile happened during this time. The Wright Brothers and Santos-Dumont made a public flight in Paris. Marconi established the world’s first radio station in 1897 on the Isle of wight and opened the first wireless factory in Chelmsford in 1898.

All this happened during a period when Europe was pre-occupied by Revolution in Russia. Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird was composed in 1910, and The Rite of Spring between 1912 and 1913, while the Ballet Russes was formed 1909 and first performed L’Aprèsmidi d’un Faune in 1912. In literature Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu was begun in 1909, James Joyce’s Dubliners appeared in 1914, Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony in 1914 and his Metamorphosis in 1915. Les Demoiselles formal innovations that are indicative of modernism, preceded all of the formal innovative breaks with the past in the artistic fields described.

But the impact of the painting extends beyond the development of modern art in purely formal terms. Perhaps above all, it’s the contemporary relevance of the subject matter which resonates most powerfully today in a society where objectification and commodification inherent to capitalism increasingly permeates popular culture.

It’s perhaps tempting to ignore the fact that the picture is about prostitution let alone about being confronted up close and personal by five prostitutes. However, some journalists recoil from confronting the fact that the core subject is about looking at, and being looked at by, prostitutes and instead replace it with other evasive interpretations. But although the picture is ostensibly about prostitution, to me it’s saying something much deeper that goes beyond the critique of one particular social institution.

The central feature of Les Demoiselles is the confrontation between the artist/brothel client/viewer. As highlighted by the gaze of the central women (second and third from the left), they are one and the same. We are left with a feeling of being gazed at with contempt by the prostitutes which initiates in us a intense discomfort.

In turn, this mutual antagonism reflects a sense of estrangement that the institution of prostitution exemplifies within the formal structures of the state. In my view, the themes that Picasso explored in Les Demoiselles could only be expressed as part of the radical break he made with the traditional forms of naturalistic representation.

What Picasso achieved with his assault on conventional standards of beauty and the use of African masks, was the de-sentimentalization and de-glamorization that capitalism, through objectification, sentimentalizes and glamorizes.

Whether Picasso was intellectually conscious of all of this as he worked on the painting is questionable. The point though, is the picture which revolutionized art cannot plausibly be considered autonomous from the nature of a society from which its creator emerged.

What’s So Great About ‘Roxy Music’?

The first of Roxy Music’s opening trilogy of masterpieces sounds as original and fresh today as it did on its release back in 1972. Comprising Bryan Ferry on vocals and piano, Graham Simpson on bass, Andrew Mackay on oboe and sax, Paul Thompson on drums, Phil Manzanera on guitar and Brian Eno on tapes and synths, the sound on the album is simultaneously futuristic, conceptual and mannered.

The album opens with Re-make/Re-model which is probably their archetype sound comprising hypnotic sax riffs, frantic, cacophonous dissonance and  abstract effects. Ladytron is an electronic psychedelic overture sang by a baritone Ferry complete with sax riffs, distorted guitars and rhythmic synths. 2 H.B is a kind of decadent serenade and one of the trademarks of Ferry’s vocal deliveries.

Roxy Music-Roxy Music.jpg

If There Is Something  is a combination of a jazz-rock jam and chamber music, whilst the catchy hit single Virginia Plain (not originally included in the album) is one of the greatest masterpieces of all rock. Here, Eno’s pulsating but methodical synths that embellish the fractured sound of clarinet, guitars and honky tonk piano, steal the show.

The Bob (Medley) is more avante-garde and abstract, whilst Chance Meeting is basically a free-jazz psychodrama-based chamber music. No less chameleon, is the rock and roll of Would You Believe that encompasses pounding piano boogie, wild sax and guitar solos.

Sea Breezes is a bleak and melancholic merging of neoclassical elements and distorted keyboards, sax and guitar. In the finale, Bitters End, Ferry sings in the languid crooning style that was later to become his trademark against a backdrop of flamenco rhythms and doo-wop.

Merging King Crimson-style pathos, jazz-rock and electronic elements, Roxy Music revolutionized prog rock by linking it to both the punk rock and new wave movements of the late 1970s and the post-punk and synthpop of the 1980s. Roxy Music are one of Britain’s greatest and most influential bands, and their self-titled debut is, in my view, their best album.

Dismaland

disma-8

Dismaland Bemusement Park is a theme park with a difference – a dystopian playground created by the anonymous artist, Banksy in the derelict Lido in Weston-Super-Mare. The artist has assembled the work of fifty other artists from around the world as far apart as Palestinian painters to the British writer Julie Burchill. The latter was commissioned to write a modern Punch and Judy whose theme is domestic violence which Burchill was a victim of:

“Good day to you my audience, you seem a smashing bunch, let me introduce myself, my name is Mr Punch. I’m part of your folk history like saucy Jack the Ripper. We both like a bit of fun like beating up a stripper” says Burchill in her opening poetic refrain.

Other installations that represent just a few of the park’s attractions include a fairy tale castle with a grizzly grotto, a boating lake full of refugees and a model village running riot.

As you enter the theme park, you are confronted by a security screening room manned by officious looking security guards, as fabricated as the threats its protecting us from, In reality, this happens to be an installation by American artist Bill Barminsky. “Any guns grenades or unicorns on you today”?, inquires one of the guards, all of whom look like they have just stepped out of the set of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

Dismaland is a very different kind of family day out, one which presents a more appropriate message to the next generation faced with the lack of meaningful work and global injustice. A step away from street art, this show is Banksy’s graffiti rendered into three dimensions. In addition to the representation of some of his traditional themes, he also presents some other new and shocking ones.

The refugee crisis off the shores of Europe, for example, becomes the subject of remote controlled motor boats. Miniature model boats crammed full with desperate looking replica humans drift on the water while some other less fortunate figures lie face down arms stretched and bloated floating on its surface.

Dismaland was perhaps part inspired by the pessimistic themes of the artist Jeff Gillette who, from his home in California, has been subverting Disney for many years. Jimmy Cauti, formerly of the pioneering UK acid House band, KLF. has presented a very different kind of street art at the show – a model of a town after a riot in which the only people remaining on the streets are 3,000 police and media standing around doing nothing looking at each other after the riot has happened.

Other pieces include Crazy Gulf -,A War About Oil – where you can hit a golf ball through a pipeline. You can also play Hook A Duck out of thick black water resulting from the aftermath of an oil slick. Children in need of more cash can borrow against their pocket money at just 5,000% APR from a nearby stall.

The climax of the exhibition is Banksy’s Castle. What he has done with an upturned carriage and a fairy princess is an extraordinary and evocative experience that’s funny, poignant and ultimately controversial which is precisely its point. You leave the exhibition, predictably, via the gift shop.

Banksy told Channel 4 News:

“For this show I didn’t deliberately set out to snub street art, I just found other stuff a lot more interesting. I seem to have reached the point where an art show is more interesting the less I’m in it.”

Dismaland Bemusement Park is open for six weeks.