Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Christmas from the perspective of a 20 something douchebag like myself

When it comes to christmas, i am neither scrooge or santa.  I must confess to a little scepticism about the whole gig - where the food is as ersatz and sugary as the sentiment. However, there's no denying christmas is a useful social convention - an encouragement of jollity in the depth of coldest winter, albeit somewhat tainted by the capital-friendly clamour for present-giving oneupmanship on the one hand, and the intellectual retardation of the story of christ on the other; ultimately, the reality of xmas is most affirmed by the strained poignancy of childhood memories and hand-me down atavism as represented by christmas, 'winterval', saturnalia,  or what ever the jesus you want to call it. 

For a unmarried, twenty-something 'professional' (i.e. i have a job that pays my rent), christmas is now an interregnum between childhood and potential childbearing: christmas ultimately only matters if you are a kid, or you have kids. The excitement that a child feels at the approach of christmas day is only replicable in a adulthood by the use of cocaine, blackjack and hookers. As a parent, there is the vicarious joy and pride in seeing your children rip the wrapper off the little novelties under the tree that could only be equalled by witnessing them giving a wedgie to the local school bully. 

But nevertheless, for the floundering single twenty-something, christmas represents a nice retreat from social and professional woes and worries. A time with family, away from the neuroses and constant self-examination that comes from always comparing your lot with that of your peers. With your family, it's rare that anyone's problems match; therefore, one can offer sympathy, without the burden of full-blown empathy. The problems of my 90 year old grandmother are unlikely to tally with mine; I can reflect on her problems, without forever referencing my own experiences, which is what i'm reduced to when friends come to me with problems (they call such advice 'the benefit of experience', but that is a misnomer in my case; i should know, I have to live with them). And, perhaps, most selfishly and pertinently, I'll never worry that her worries are more glamorous and interesting than mine. 

Christmas is a time of excess for many; drink, eat and be merry, for tomorrow we die, as the old saying goes (or at least it did, until the early onset of diabetes and heart problems.)  People say they do this, because christmas is the only time of the year they hang with family and friends; christ, who do you hang around with the rest of the year? Embittered traffic wardens? 
Christmas is the one time of the year I don't view through the bottom of a bottle. You may be my friend, and you might like to drink, that can wait till I'm back in the new year. I will be in the abstemious womb-like atmosphere of the remaining stump of my family. Christmas, for me, is not the time of year for excess; the rest of the calendar is. 

peace on earth, and a half of mild, please santa. 

merry fucken xmas. x

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Drumro[ll] 1st Birthday with Sandwell District, The Black Dog, George Fitzgerald & Richard H Kirk at Park Hill

Emerging from Sheffield train station, Park Hill, an old sink estate currently undergoing redevelopment, looms over the city skyline like Dracula's castle, as if remodelled by Le Corbusier. From the middle of a concrete fortress, the nights kicks off at unnaturally early 8pm (licensing issues having now required a 2am curfew). Darkness has not long settled in over the city, and Park Hill now assumes its unlikely status as the place to be. An old brutalist monument to post-war social democratic optimism and the subsequent political, social and architectural decay? Not a popular choice, but that'll do me for a night out of dark electronic music. Steely music for the steel city, dark music for a dark space.

All 3 acts (George Fitzgerald, only dj'ed at a subsequent afterparty) formed a logical programme, ensuring a continuity of dark, brooding electronic music, with differences enough apparent to keep things interesting. Richard H Kirk, who as part of Cabaret Voltaire, was making strange noises before most contemporary producers were even sperm, had an early start, and set about establishing the industrial theme of the evening from the off, chafing as this initially was. This was no warm-up. Straight on to local gods, The Black Dog. No nice groovy tech-house interludes, it was on to Techno with a capital T. It was heavy, dark and rolling, as one would expect, but they were not to bludgeon the audience into submission. That role was to be assumed, as expertly as could be expected, by Sandwell District, whose two members have as much techno experience between them as your average Detroit phonebook.

On record, Sandwell District manage to introduce a little warmth into one of the most hair-shirted and ascetic strains of dance music (or any music), through the use of icy synth lines and ethereal washes of sound, forging a continuity between their post-punk and techno/IDM influences. Live, underneath the raw concrete of Park Hill, atmospherics and abstraction is substituted for brittle, body-bashing blasts of percussion. It could be said that it is all just merely very functional, but in the world of techno, 'mere' functionalism is nothing to be scared of. Where the function is to create a dark spasm of euphoria on crowded dancefloors, forms follow function, and ends justify means.

In a mix of their own tracks ('Immolare'), SD affiliated offshoots (Regis' 'Blood Witness' being a sheer glory of a cacophony) and various referents too numerous to name and number, SD prove in a two-hour sprint that while techno may be mocked by many for its apparent dryness and emotional frigidity (as noted in Simon Reynold's excellent Energy Flash), it can, at the right place, the right time, inspire sweaty, mindless (as in un self-conscious) possession as any other music you could care to compartmentalise.

The remarkable congruity of the programming, the venue and the novelty of the occasion was an affirmation that dark, sometimes difficult electronic music, is to be enjoyed, and is not the arch soundtrack to pseudo-nihilistic grandstanding it can sometimes appear to be.

6am On A Normal Saturday Night at Fabric, London

Room 1: Boom tish.
Room 2: Bum Tisch.
Room 3: Closed.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Berlin - A Reprise

The following is a selection of notes I wrote when visiting Berlin for the second time in 2011. These were mainly written in a myriad of local bars, and hence the views expressed in this piece are not necessarily those of a sober and collected Alex J Caldwell.

I have been attempting to transcend the iniquities and anodyne tyranny of 21st century capitalism by not permitting myself to cross the area formerly established by the Berlin wall. This is rendered somewhat difficult by the fact that the wall snaked through, rather than neatly declinated the east and west of the city.

I gingerly stall, for example, the area around Freiderichstrasse (the former U-Bahn stop on the border), knowing that one false step will take me into the bourgeois liberty and its accompanying tat of the west. I walk, not so much on eggshells, but on little pyschogeographic landmines and booby traps. The watchtowers may be down, the riles lowered and impotent, and only caution, a detailed map, and a careful reading of Marxism-Leninism will see me safe.

Luckily for me, in the east, the beer is cheaper, the air is smokier, and the clubs (legendary techno temples Berghain and Tresor) are better. And, despite the absence of the wall, there are always indications that you are indeed in the east. If it's dirty, if rubble litters dead chocked lawns and rotted industry, you, mein freunde, are in ostberlin.

The reunification of Berlin has, rather paradoxically, rendered the whole of the city socialist, east and west, in a way that was not true at the time of division. Electorally, Berlin is the exclusive territory of the social-democratic SPD, the Greens, and Die Linke, a left-wing ragbag of ostdeutsche communists, socialist radicals, anarchists and other malcontents. The Christian Democrats bear out not the slightest contour in the local political topography. There is next to no chance of a right-wing suburbanite acceding to the mayoralship of the capital, unlike London, presided over by the sometimes amusing, but generally rather vexing semi-rule of Boris Johnson.

Despite the marginal hegemony of the SPD in Berlin, little of the regulatory nannying associated with New 'Labour' and the European centre-'left' prevails. Smoking is so prevelant that the city has been twinned with Ashtray, Marlboro Country. OK, Berlin maybe an ashtray of a city, but at least it's not so emasculated, that it drinks red bull for some pep, and would rather you went on the border to have a cigarette.

Berlin is not health-conscious, but instead realises that even 99.9% of people who don't smoke, don't drink, and do yoga and eat tofu to the point that their colon is sponsored by Linda McCartney, will in time die, a fate so depressing that the only effective recourse is to pour y'rself a beer, light up a fag and wait for this mortal coil to become unsprung, and hopefully have some belly laughs and occassional epiphanies along the way.

The result of all this fine living and disregard for health-related prissiness, is that Berlin sucks at sport. As at the time of writing, it's hopeless football team Hertha Berlin lingers in the second tier of the Bundesliga. The level of football in Berlin is approximate to that of Scottish football outside the confines of Celtic and Rangers. Hertha Berlin plays in the er, olympian munificence of the Olympiastadion, the equivalent of Leyton Orient being rehoused at the new Stratford Olympic stadium.

Still, anyway, there's not much time for sport in Berlin. In any case, is not exercise just that thing that uncultured people do in lieu of artistic creation, an asexual, hair-shirted sublimation of the overriding, ultimate drive to snag one's genitals on the orifice of another?

Instead, Berlin's sport is creation, including that of it's own environment. Having rubble and delapidation - you have to paint that shit well for it to look good, or get the contractors in. And Berliners have opted, being poor, for the first option, but how they put their back into it. Graffiti is done with brains, thought and passion, as well as with a spraycan, instead of a little piss-artist tagging every bus shelter, as is the case in London. The city is dotted with playgrounds for children, most of which would violate any number of health and safety regulations. A splinter and a skinned knee is nothing to be scared of. Berlin is a hard city, for hard men, spirited women and robust children.

Berlin is a city that has had enough of rules, its current intemperance possibly rooted in previous decades of war, and authoritarianism (for more on this spurious theory, scroll down and see my previous article on Berlin). It's made uo for having so little fun in previous decades, but probably outdoing any other European city in the safely unregulated exericse of hedonism and artistic creativity.

I'm a fair few beers in by now. I'm nearly the sole remaining customer in a bar at 2 am. Where's Edward Hopper when you need him, mixing paints and setting up an easel?

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Amoriste - Under the Hours of the Satellite Towers EP

At sixth form college, I had a rather quirky friend who said that his favourite band of all time was Supergrass. Supergrass? I mean, come on. Nobody hates Supergrass (it would be a very misanthropic soul that would) but, out of all the bands in the world, the best that ever emerged through the flow and jetsam of rock history... Supergrass? Are you sure?

Amoriste are hard to hate, and I wouldn't even try. But it is unlikely that they will ever be your favourite band. This is not an judgement of their ability as musicians, as a band or as people. It is simply to say that Amoriste are not looking to lead a vainglorious, all-conquering rawk n rowl enterprise. Amoriste are down-to-earth songwriters, not letting delusions of grandeur muddle their inherent gift and feel for melody.

The overall feel of the songs is one of sunshine -dappled lightness and brevity. 'Saturday am' celebrates notes not the rampant exaltation of saturday night, but instead the gentle promise of a saturday morning, with the prospect of sneaky half-pints, the mowing of grass and 'suburban pride for all to see.' The song sets a tone for the whole EP, cheerful, rooted in suburbia. Most bands refer to East London, Soho, Williamsburg, New York etc in their songs, often with an accompanying air of glamorous, cosmopolitan ennui. In 'City Lights', Tolan suggests to his beloved that they sail down to that fulcrum of nightlife, glamour and debauchary... Wivenhoe? (For those not in Essex, Wivenhoe is known locally as being a cross between Paris and Rio de Janiero, on account of its broad boulevards and pulsating nightlife. Yes. No. I'm lying.)

The feel pervades the album. Amoriste's clear choruses and gently celebratory melodies work to manage a marriage between the anthemic and the intimate. While Amoriste clearly aim to write memorable, sing-along choruses (and sometimes unequivocally succeed), an air of intimacy prevails. While much of rock and indie music is good at describing much of the more big emotions in life, such as love, hate, rage (and it's more bookish brother, angst), lust, despair etc, it often fails in articulating simple pleasures, like the cup of tea on a rainy day, or the first holding of hands. Amoriste attempt to plug this gap, with the occasional caustic tone ('the curtain comes down on the day/white collar criminals come out to play') never really affecting the pervasive relaxed, sensitive optimism of the songs.

The music itself (yes, I suppose I had to come to round to it eventually) is rooted in the slightly tweedy indie-rock of Athlete, Belle and Sebestian, and other such assorted cardigan-wearers. The music is clear, uncluttered, simple exercises in the verse/chorus/middle eight structure. Though the smart money will be on those songs with the easiest of choruses ('Saturday AM', 'City Lights'), 'Vagablondes' relies on some really interesting instrumentation, the guitar at the start strangely reminiscent of Peter Buck's jangle on REM albums circa Murmur or Reckoning, and a glacial, post-punk middle section. The chimes at the start are even rather Brian Eno-like. This is not to say that this represents some Ornette Coleman citing experimentation, but it makes it stand apart from the other songs on the album, and could possibly point to future developments in the band's music in the future.

Refreshingly unpretentious, easy going, its intimate aura covering up its lack of ambition, Under the Hours of Satellite Towers is pleasant company. Not exactly songs that will save your life, but at at least as good as a really good cup of tea or a sneaky half.

Amoriste - Under the Hours of Satellite Towers is out 15th July on itunes.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Dirty Money: What would happen to our currency if the UK abolished the monarchy?

What would happen to our currency if the UK abolished the monarchy?

Let's not splinter our rectums by sitting on the fence; I am against the existence of the monarchy. I find the arguments employed in justifying the monarchy are just that- arguments. And I don't want to argue (You do? - shit). Well, I just don't want to be ruled by a family so inbred that their family tree resembles a stump.
The monarchy, apparently, is a valuable tourist attraction: a fulcrum for those Europeans, Japanese and Americans who are so starved of tacky chintz in their native modernist environments, bereft of the comfort of the gaudy. Paris attracts tourists in the millions, and no history lesson I'm sure is needed to outline that the monarchical history of France has ceased to be a going concern for a fair while now. The tourist revenue generating monarchy arguments hold no water. As if Arthur and Martha in Iowa are saying, "Gee, ah don't wanna holidaay in a country that don't have no constitutional moanarchy, ah mit git them AIDS disease."

The problems of abolishing the monarchy are not those of tradition, history, inbred atavism, or a resulting thinning of sunday supplements. Instead, they are macroscopically logistic - what will happen to our stamps and our banknotes? Hell, stamp collectors would be in business- the price would triple overnight (I've got a 2009 second class stamp - its got the queen on!- hear the future cry of of lamborgihni-owning philatelists).

I've never been one for stamp collecting myself, but neither would I hold that all stamp collectors are forty year old single men whose most exciting sexual experience was wanking into their elder sister's tights. However, most of us like to accumulate huge WADS of banknotes. Personally, though, I'm a little bored of having the prim, then virginal queen staring benignly back at me (though these days, I'm always reminded of the scene in Peep Show where Jeremy, on a visit to a sperm bank, has to expend one over the queen, in lieu of actual porn). But take out your wallet, go be rolling out that foldin' money. They all have the queen on! It's booorrriiinnggg. Males of an age before the internet may be reminded of collecting Panini (before it became a heated sandwich for tossers) football stickers. Completism was the name of the game. You had to last the full ninety minutes. But in every single pack, there was always one sticker that was Les Ferdinand, or some hack midfielder for Sheffield Wednesday whose name escapes memory, and probably history, too.

So, in our little hypothetical utopia, where the only issue of concern is what to print on our banknotes, how should the wise and well-endowed children of the revolution resolve this nagging issue? How do we go from this -

I turn for inspiration, like most rationally-minded people in times of great and trying practical difficulty, to the zany world of cultish Brit sitcoms, in this instance, the great, the wonderful.... Bottom.
For the criminally uninitiated, Bottom was a mildly successful British sitcom concerning the desperate attempts of two Hammersmith-dwelling saddos called Richard Richard and Eddie Hitler to get laid, and, in essence, not to be, two Hammersmith-dwelling saddos called Richard Richard and Eddie Hitler. In one episode, Eddie Hitler attempts to ameliorate their flyover-poverty by forging money. Competency and sobriety not being part of Eddie's armoury, he cleverly circumvents this by printing obscene banknotes (one such tableau depicting Sylvester Stallone fisting Mr McInnery from the Magic Roundabout), in an attempt to dazzle barmen and shop assistants in the locale in the hope that 'they don't recognise how crap the squiggly lines are'. What a brilliant idea...

Forgive the soiling of my impeccable, republican left-leaning credentials, but I believe that male boggle-eyed lechery will continue into any future socialist utopia. And to assuage the depraved urges of the filthy (yet noble) proles, I would venture for Miss UK to be the face (and rather more besides) of our currency. Yes, have Miss UK, on our banknotes, in incrementally advancing states of undress according to the appreciating value of the banknote. On the fiver, she wears a nice dress, maybe a little taut around the hips and cleavage. Onto the tenner, she's clad in a bikini; on the twenty, she's naked, except for the sucking on a lollipop and a strategically placed copy of the Racing Post. And, boy, if you get a fifty, you're not even going to be wanting to spend that. Brothers, sisters, lets get rid of the monarchy, so we can have revolutionary pornographic banknotes. Let's give filthy lucre a truer and better name.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

The Aesthetics of Totalitarianism

George Orwell said, "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face - forever."
Hey, nice shoes...

It is an indubitable law of the universe, it seems, that the bad guys have the best shit. Just compare the Nuremberg rally to the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. Or the May Day military parade in Soviet Moscow's Red Square to the comparable modesty of a US military procession. Totalitarianism is better than democracy, if only in terms of iconography. Natty facial hair optional, natch (aside from Mussolini, of course, but he's very much second division totalitarianism).

No lunchtime sociologist is required for the formulation of this premise. Anyone who has some snifter of a trend in popular culture snag on their synapses can agree with this. The amount of documentaries on channel 4 (or channel fuhrer) on the Nazis is roughly equatable with those on subjects based on unfortunate medical aliments. Prince Harry once famously wore a Swastika armband to one of those hideous little fancy dress parties where the rich and the dumb come one.

And where the whiplash insignia of the Nazis was favoured among rock groups from Motorhead, the early Siouxsie and the Banshees, to Joy Division, and lately forming a string to the soiled Stradivarius of Marilyn Manson, the hammer b'twixt sickle is now a t-shirt cliche.

Last time I saw X Factor (the big 'X' being the swastika of lite entertainment) Cheryl Cole wore a Soviet Army Cap. Professional bohemian Pete Doherty also seems to wear one whenever his trilby has to go to cleaners for its monthly scrape.
And Che Guevara, alive in image (even if the ideas have not proved quite so febrile), is now not a fashion icon based on the encapsulation of a worthy political idea, but an abstract motif, a heady bush of facial hair with not even the wisp of an ideological taint to mar its hirsutal halo.

But there is a disparity of response: the use of communist iconography does not attract the controversy that the use of fascist imagery would court. This being despite the fact that communism lasted far longer, and to far more recently in history, than the full malevolent blossoming of fascism was ever fact. I am not intending to get on the moral treadmill of ranking communism and fascism in terms of evil; I am not A J P Taylor, nor was meant to be. But Soviet kitsch took a place of comfort in popular culture in less than ten years after the wall's fall, while fascist kitsch would still be too awkward a subject for the sunday supplements - maybe because of all the jews in the media - (JOKE). Kitsch, if I could venture my defintion, is characterised by the presenting of something which is obviously trying to be beautiful, or powerful, and the obviousness of the approach, and the ultimate failure in its execution, renders it somewhat laughable. This mocking reaction is what we now call 'kitsch'. In political terms, using the iconography of an ideology that is no longer a threat, for artistic purposes, would be kitsch. Communism, no longer a threat, is now ripe for the plundering by politically non-committal aesthetic types.

But soviet kitsch seems to be rather more acceptable than any nazi equivalent. Why? My theory is that there lies a natural human sympathy for the ideas of communism. The USSR failed, and acted out an uncolletable score of human atrocity, but not because of the ideology itself. It set out to create a utopia, and ended up with a stodigly bureaucratic hell. The Nazis started off with, "Let's kill the jews." And they did. Their ideology come to near fruition. Communism never came to fruition in the soviet bloc.
In addition, communism decayed. Nazism exploded. Communism became almost normal, and seemed to be drained of much of its former zealotry under the sclerotic, rather bumblingly semi-evil tenure of Leonid Brezhnev. Communism does not carry the same visceral association with genocide, torture and murder as 'Nazism' does, despite the Math of the body count.

Despite this drain of ideological zeal, the Soviets never lost their 'feel' (if that is not too subjectively bourgeois word- forgive me, comrade) for the well-drilled presentation, the tautly organised spectacle? Who needs pop music when you have nuclear missiles passing through the square?

Maybe its nostalagia, also. Not a wish to return to the old days, but to a time when politics was less complicated; a straight forward dialectic of communism/capitalism, left/right. Now, for the majority of people, its so hard to tell where one stands, that one does not know which way is up, which way is down, or where the bathroom is. This translates into the aesthetic; how come was it that extremists of both left and right were able to conjure such simple, yet mnemoic ideas with just swathes of red, and tangles of lines? All they had to go on was an idea and a stencil, and all the focus groups in all the world could not come up with the design genius of the swastika or the hammer and sickle.

One gets the impression they were drawn up on a beermat at a secret meeting in a room above a scurrilous little bar, not chintzly added to and evolved by tradition, and asphyxiated continuity, like monarchical parades.
Totalitarianism strives for uniformity in society, in the way that minimalists do for art. Uniformity is a form of minimalism. And totalitarianism is an attempt to impose this minimalism on society in toto. In totalitarism, all art is political. And as society is to be simple, demarcated and uniform then so too must art. This is not to suggest that minimalism is in some way fascistic. Deciding how to present your product, your album cover or fashion show or whatever, is an individual thing, and not a manifesto.
But no band or designer would ever court the iconography of democracy and epitomise cool. Having a picture of Nelson Mandela on your album cover would not exactly appear edgy, would it? Instead, people would just think, 'oh its another fucking U2 album.' Even if one was politically inclined to consider the White House to be the citadel of global oppression, it doesn't carry the same aesthetic kick of communist or nazi symbology. If, as George Orwell said, a totalitarian future would be a boot stomping on a human face - forever,. However, at least with the Nazis, they'd be wearing cool shoes all the while.