Category: culture

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:


Frank who?

By Daniel Margrain

In light of Iain Dale’s recent posting of BT Sports brilliant ‘Farewell to Upton Park’ video piece on West Ham United Football Club, the forthcoming move to the Olympic Stadium and the thought of Leicester City riding high in the Premier League in my mind, I couldn’t help but think of the “Boys of ’86”.

The sustained top four challenge of the Foxes this season can certainly, in my view, be compared to West Ham’s challenge for the title in 1986 which was all the more surprising given the fact that the team had an abysmal pre-season that led up to it.

Having been outplayed by Leyton Orient at Brisbane Road (merely Orient as they were know then) where we lost 3-1, the expectation among both the press and many West Ham fans in the build up to the 1986 season was that we would struggle with a likely relegation battle on the cards.

The backdrop to the 1986 season was one in which the Heysel Stadium that preceded it played a significant part. But what the fans and critics alike didn’t take account of was the return to the team from injury of the magnificent Alan Devonshire (in my view only second to Sir Trevor in the Hammers all time list of greats), the signing of Mark Ward, and arguably most important of all, the arrival at the club of the former cab driver, and boy about town, the mercurial, Frank McAvennie. These three players represented the new creative spine of the team.

It’s perhaps ironical then, that the one player who probably above any other was responsible for the record highest level finish in the clubs history was, at the time, virtually unknown among domestic football fans for a significant part of the season. This was because English football at the time suffered a widespread media black out as a consequence of the hooliganism of others.

This meant that the ‘playboy’ Frank was able to maintain his legendary hedonistic status unhindered by the media spotlight. But it also meant that a large chunk of the goals scored by the second most prolific scorer in the league at that time was not televised in England during the first handful of games of the 1986 season. As incredible as it seems today, I remember getting second hand reports about Frank’s prowess in front of goal from people in Denmark and Sweden. For many football fans in Britain, it was a case of Frank who?

It’s almost forgotten now that the former St Mirren ace was inches away from putting pen to paper with Luton Town. Apparently somebody reminded him of the world cup winning legacy that will forever will be associated with the club from east London.

Despite having been turned away by bouncers on the door of Stringfellows which as legend has it, was the main reason why he decided to head south in the first place, Frank finally saw sense having had a last minute change of mind. The rest, as they say, is history. Frank went on to net 26 league goals that season which was only bettered by Gary Lineker at Everton who went on to score 30.

It’s perhaps interesting to note that the starting eleven for West Ham at the time was not particularly a distinguished one containing few internationally renowned players of note. Yes, we had our record signing colossus Phil ‘Cossack’ Parkes in goal and the ever dependable hot shot penalty king in Ray ‘Tonka’ Stewart at the right side of the defence. And yes, we had the ever dependable Alvin Martin on the left and maestro and play-maker Devonshire in midfield, but the rest of the team was largely a hitherto untried experiment.

The 1986 season might have ended differently had manager John Lyall played Frank in his accustomed midfield role (his position at St Mirren) which was the reason why he was brought to Upton Park in the first place. But Frank wanted to score goals as much as he craved the adoration that comes with it, and a midfield position wasn’t going to cut the mustard for him.

So having asked management if he could play up front instead, John Bond obliged. The intention was to play him deep in the hole behind the underrated Paul Godard. Frank has since joked that playing in the hole was something he had done all his adult life. But as it turned out, injury to Godard, meant that it wasn’t to be.

Having lost two of our three opening games, the omens weren’t looking good. By mid-September we had only reached the dizzying heights of 17th while Manchester United had won their opening ten games on the bounce. Thereafter, the fortunes of West Ham United began to change after the club went on what can only be described as an incredible run of form.

Tony Gale has since described the team that was to be part of this magnificent run as being better than the championship winning team he subsequently went on to play for, Blackburn Rovers. The 84 point total the team acquired at the end of the 1986 season was a tally that would have won the league the previous season.

What also must be kept in mind is that the team lost ten games that season which shows just how many games they won, as opposed to drawing. By the years end, just four points separated West Ham from the league leaders. It was only Liverpool’s amazing run of ten victories in their last eleven games that prevented the Hammers from claiming the title.

Everton – arguably West Ham’s historical bogey team who were also on an amazing run – beat us in our penultimate game which finally sealed our fate and we went on to finish third behind Liverpool and Everton. I know that the table rarely lies, but that particular season it did. Many neutrals old enough to remember have said to me that the West Ham team of ’86 were the best team never to have not won the league in any given year.

To add salt to the wound, West Ham were denied UEFA cup action the following season due to the ban on English clubs in European competitions, which had started a year earlier due to the Heysel tragedy.

The following season, having finished 15th and with Frank scoring just seven league goals from 36 games and eleven from 47 games in all competitions, the inextricable slide of the club began. But that’s another story for another day.

Are the Brady Bunch hammering the public purse?

By Daniel Margrain

I’m sure that I speak for the vast majority of West Ham fans when I say that the start of each season is met with an air of extreme trepidation. The feeling of anxiety in anticipating what is to come in the opening six weeks or so of any campaign is exacerbated if our first game of the season happens to be a home fixture.

From a personal point of view, I can barely get through the hours leading up to the opening Saturday afternoon kick off without exhibiting a combination of cold sweats, nausea and nervous fidgeting. I can only compare the experience to my school days during the hours leading up to the time when my exam results would drop from the letterbox on to the hallway floor.

You know you have to face the proverbial music at some point but don’t want the potential disappointment that comes with it. You tell yourself you want to know the results of your exams but paradoxically, at the same time, you fear the dreaded fail, rather like sitting through a horror movie with your hands “covering” your eyes. Similarly, I dread putting on Final Score, particularly during the opening day of the season and particularly if the game is at home.

The agony is prolonged due to the fact that our home result is invariably the last Premier League one to be read out, just as it was the case that Ardleigh was one of the last streets on our posties Basildon round. Non-football fans are simply unable to comprehend the suffering we football fans have to endure on a Saturday afternoon. Every season has been the same for me since I can remember and the 2015-16 season was no different.

As our pre-season Europe campaign under our new charismatic manager turned out to be nothing less than an unmitigated disaster, expectations for a good premier league start were low. After confounding the football world with our amazing opening league victory against Arsenal away, confidence was high for the next few games.

But West Ham being West Ham, we lost the next two at home on the bounce to less than glamorous opposition before turning it around with three subsequent victories, two of which were nothing less than stunning against Liverpool and Manchester City respectively.

With 12 points in the bag after our opening six games, I felt as though I was, to a degree, in a position to be able to relax. Of course West Ham fans never totally relax. As all life-long Hammers supporters will know, expectations for a successful season are typically medium to non-existent.

If in this current campaign, the Hammers were to finish in a top eight position and have a good cup run I’ll be relatively happy. Despite our recent hiccups in the league, not least in part due to our mounting injury list, I believe our squad is strong enough to secure a top half finish.

With our move away from our spiritual home at the Boleyn into the Olympic Stadium at Stratford in east London from next season, it’s important that we finish high up in the table in order to attract new players to the club while keeping hold of our best.

With a manager and former player (who appears to be finally attuned to the  entertainment ethos of the club that the fans demand) pretty much cemented into place for the foreseeable future, things are as solid as they can be for a club of our size and the relatively limited resources we have at our disposal.

As far as the fans are concerned, off the park shenanigans are, at least on the surface, good as well given that those who run the club plan to substantially reduce season ticket prices in an an attempt to fill the new stadiums 54,000 capacity – a model that other clubs have apparently been encouraged to adopt.

But as I will hopefully be able to argue persuasively in the remainder of the article, this is a double edged sword. Here’s the problem: West Ham United are paying just £15million towards the £272 million cost of converting the Olympic Stadium despite the fact that, should the club still be a Premier League outfit next year (which seems highly likely), it will – under the terms of a new TV deal – be entitled to a payout of at least £99 million.

Small business people, many of whom run their businesses on extremely tight margins, might be scratching their heads as to how it can be that the elite within football, such as multi-millionaire Lady Brady who brokered the deal, are seemingly immune to the kind of market forces that the former are compelled to adhere to?

As far as the super-rich with contacts to the top echelons of political power are concerned – whether they be premier league chairmen or City bankers – it would appear that the kind of business risks the rest of us are prone to, is not applicable to them.

In this regard, it is difficult how one could possibly argue that the Premier League is no different in principle to what happens within the much maligned banking “racket”. Perhaps I’m missing something here and readers will be able to point out to me where I’ve got it wrong.

I’m not one of these obstinate traditionalists who is intent on stifling change. On the contrary, I embrace it. I’m excited as the next man about the move to our shiny new stadium. However, what I’m less than enamoured by is the morally and financially expedient, needless to say potentially corrupt price tag that comes with it.

The reality, however one looks at the situation, is that we, the tax paying fans and non-fans alike, will be subsidizing what essentially is a risk-free big business speculative enterprise on behalf of the super rich. It’s true that in season one ticket prices will be cheaper than our London rivals, but it’s fanciful to suggest that during subsequent seasons ticket prices will remain similarly low.

I have no detailed insight into the medium to long term business plan model that the club has in place, but it would surely be churlish to deny the directors at the club have not been eyeing up something along the lines of the Arsenal model.

Lady Brady and the rest of the high flyers within the club set up are in line to make a financial killing not just from us, the everyday football fan, but also from the wider tax paying public. The various pronouncements made in the media, particularly by David Gold regarding his supposed love for West Ham United Football club, are in part clearly intended at staving off any criticisms of the club over a stadium deal that has been less than transparent.

In my view, what often tends to get overlooked in the rush for on the field success, is the realization that the David Gold’s of this world are multimillionaire, and in some cases, billionaire businessmen and women who are first and foremost motivated by profit. If they happen to be in the position of being able to grab a big slice of these profits by creaming off great swaths of our tax revenues in the process, then all the better for them.

This is not an anti-business stance I’m taking here but an anti-corruption stance – albeit a form of legalized corruption. It’s not good for the reputation of West Ham United Football Club and its fans that we will be perceived as having unfair financial leverage over other similarly sized clubs, predicated on a system of legalized corruption.

I’m not arguing here that these kinds of underhand non-transparent deals and unethical business practices are unique to West Ham United, it’s just that I’m uncomfortable with the idea of us engendering success both on and off the field in a way that is symptomatic of the malaise that seems to have become an accepted, and some might argue, intrinsic aspect of socioeconomic and political life in our country.

That the kinds of informal corruption and unethical business practices described seem to have become a normalizing feature of not only professional football and other sports, but in public life more broadly, is not something West Ham fans, or indeed any other fans, should readily embrace without serious critique.

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.

The Paris postmortem.

By Daniel Margrain

President Hollande’s declaration yesterday (November 16) that France is on a war footing is an almost seamless continuation of his rhetorical flourishes that followed the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January. This time, though, they have intensified and are clearly intended to give a signal to Syria’s President Assad that he can expect more bombs to be dropped on his country.

Something similar happened after 9-11 when President Bush announced to the American public, and hence the world, that the price to be paid for the deaths of over 3,000 people on American soil would be the spilling of the blood of Islamist terrorists, which of course, turned out to be a euphemism for the deaths of a million Iraqi civilians. Although the countries’ and time-frames are different, the magnitude of the grandstanding rhetoric and the upcoming violent retributive responses are not.

Hollande said that the terrorist attacks were “orchestrated from abroad”. But so too have been the attacks on Syria by NATO over the last four and a half years. The dropping of Western imperialist bombs under the umbrella of a war based on the responsibility to protect doctrine, is far more deadly and destructive than the collateral damage caused by a handful of psychopathic killers and sadists under the epithet, “terrorism”. The intended aim of the latter was to cause a lasting sense of disorientation and fear among the masses while the purpose of the former is the destabilization of a country as the precursor to the eventual domination of an entire region by a Western elite.

The leaders of the great imperial powers whose whirlwind of destruction throughout the middle east has resulted in the debris blowing back into the symbolic and literal foundations of Parisian culture have, in so doing, struck at the heart of enlightened modernity and bohemian excess. A city whose decadent charms could be best discovered by walking it’s streets in the manner of the flaneur is rapidly becoming a pastime that is out of step with these increasingly coarse times.

What the impact of creeping globalization has managed to do to the cultural landscape of the city is to diminish its collective sense of unity and resistance to the vagaries of market forces that typify many other cities. The political consequences that will almost certainly arise from the terrorism witnessed on the streets of Paris will be a further crackdown on civil liberties, growing suspicion of the “other”, a rising tide of chauvinist nationalism, and the implementation of a strategy of divide and rule.

The panic and fear witnessed on the streets of the city shown on the mainstream news channels in the aftermath of the attacks will, I suspect, be an illustration of what is to come in the future. The fear will likely be whipped up by the French mainstream media and leading politician’s who, as the investigative journalist Gearoid O’Colmain has pointed out, will almost certainly focus their campaigns on undermining attempts by dissidents who publicly question the established order.

For all of the fighting talk by Hollande of how the war will be taken to the terrorists and how they cannot hope to succeed with their strategy of violence, is not borne out by the resulting panic that ensued. The uncomfortable truth is the terrorists are winning. We now live in an era of eternal war fought on the absurd premise that a corresponding everlasting peace is just around the corner. This circular illogicality is underpinned by numerous ongoing conflicts which are being fought on unlimited battlefronts on a global scale.

This scenario isn’t lost on the elite 1 per cent who regard the end game as the emergence of a “peace” predicated on continued injustice and the creation of a wilderness starved of hope and aspiration for the remaining 99 per cent. The combination of an Hobbesian world and the kind of future of the science fiction of Huxley and Orwell  is in truth a mark of the present that somehow we have let happen as though having stepped blindfolded and hypnotized into the pages of the novels of their creators’.

The people of the world are caught in the middle in this disaster while the elite look down on the chaos and carnage from their ivory towers and from the luxurious comfort of their gated communities. The connections between the environmental degradation of our planet which is crumbling around us, and the limits of a system predicated on the unsustainable concept of unlimited economic growth and warfare are clear.

The propaganda that the leading politicians and their mouthpieces in the mainstream media present to the public is the notion that state violence is the default position to counter the terrorism of which the chaos and carnage described is implicit. The BBCs political editor Laura Kuenssberg, for example, constantly gives the impression of being baffled about peace over violence.

In a high-profile piece on the BBC’s flagship News at Ten programme on September 30, Kuenssberg featured in an almost comically biased, at times openly scornful, attack on Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear weapons.  The overall narrative is that violence is the answer to violence which is presented as normal while diplomacy and peace is regarded as radical and “off message”.

Rarely do the media point out the truth that violence against an ideology can never in practice be a winning strategy or that neoliberal socioeconomic fundamentalism is as extreme as its politically-inspired violent offshoot. One of the causes that has laid waste to alienation and radicalism in Paris is the kind of socioeconomic discord that the racially segregated Muslim ghettos at its periphery and its sterile hollowed out core reflect.

What underpins this socioeconomic discord is the history of French imperialism and colonialism. The root cause of the despair and terrorist depravity that the world witnessed last Friday is not located in the bazaars of Damascus or the cafes of Algiers but in the boardrooms and plush offices of metropolitan cities like London, Paris and Washington.