Thursday, 30 April 2009

For whom the bells ching

Years ago I was sat around with a friend listening to music. "Purple Haze" came on and he cranked it up with the words, "Excellent, I want this song played at my funeral". I thought that was great but not the song for me and realised that I hadn't given the matter the serious thought it deserved. As it turns out, after not much very serious thought on the matter, I find I've pretty much settled on "Bike" by Pink Floyd. First off it's a good tune and the lyrics are as appropriate for an atheist funeral as anything. And it's short. The main part of the song is a cheerful litany of random things. But the end of the song - the horrible looped noise - draws things to a suitably bleak and mysterious end. That noise gives me the creeps. It reminds me of the bit in the Odyssey where Odysseus makes a sacrifice and the souls of the dead flit around the blood, gibbering.

My back up is the far more miserable "Dominoes". It's a proper dirge and the lyrics, I think, seem to touch on mortality. As far as I can remember I came to these choices years apart and it's just a co-incidence that they're both Syd Barrett numbers. Obviously his life was a tragedy but on the surface I don't think of him as a morbid character. Apart from the fact that he's dead of course. Pink Floyd are one of my favourite groups and I also find their band story interesting. Sometime after Syd's death, possibly the 25th anniversary of "Dark Side of the Moon", I saw a very good documentary about them. One thing in it irked me though, the idea that Syd had opted out of the music business because he thought pop was too shallow. This theory is possibly salving a few consciences but is totally blown apart by the fact that he showed up at the recording sessions for "Wish You Were Here" obviously wanting to contribute.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

I know a place to go

All my adult life I've had a greasy spoon to go to. My first regular cafe was The Newbridge in a small Welsh town called Lampeter. It's where I was a student and soon into my first term I was eating there at least three times a week. After some initial sampling I quickly settled on sausage, egg and chips. And this remains the benchmark meal against which all cafes will be judged. Decor-wise, from a purist point of view, The Newbridge wasn't a classic cafe (eg: no formica) but it obviously hadn't been done up for decades so in spirit I think it qualified. Resistance to the outside march of progress is essential in making these places such sanctuaries. After wolfing my food down in a matter of minutes I could sit there for ages smoking fags, chatting to a friend or doing the crossword; almost in a trance, lulled by the indistinct babble, the noise of the teamaking machine and the rain lashing against the large, steamed up windows. In addition to the atmosphere the sausage, egg and chips were the best I've ever had, probably due to the chip-making machine they had on the premises. The place was run by three little old ladies; on graduation day I was going down the line of dignitaries shaking their hands and there one of them was, wearing a Henry VIII style hat and a huge gold chain of office. I went back a few years ago: the place had been renamed (Dai's Diner I think), the little old ladies were gone, the lighting was about fifty watts fiercer and the chips were oven chips. Oh well.

In London I used to go to Farina's on Leather Lane but now I'm nearer The Regency in Pimlico. The Regency looks the part and the food is good, better than Farina's, but I always feel a bit rushed in there - it's very popular. And it's a bit bright. Farina's is nicely dingy and the flow of customers is much gentler. Just up the road from The Regency is the not-at-all-cosmic Astral Cafe, which is okay.

Way out west in St Margarets is the excellent Ches's. I haven't been in since it was done up a year or two ago - but it certainly used to be the most perfectly preserved 1950s cafe I've ever eaten in. The food's brilliant as well. I used to make a point of getting my breakfast here before long car journeys. In the same neck of the woods is The Quality Fish Bar in Richmond. Not sure if chippies count as greasy spoons but just look at the place - it has booths. I wish every eating establishment had booths. Another nice thing about it is that the cutlery and crockery is all mis-matched. Hmm, I might go there this weekend actually.

Finally, my favourite, The Forge Dam Cafe in Sheffield. Not only is it a prefab 1950s hut that serves a very respectable sausage, egg and chips it's also situated in the middle of some lovely woods and, as the name suggests, right next to an old mill pond. It's open every day of the year and the food there has restored me to life on New Year's Day a couple of times. Because it's not an urban cafe it feels less weird going outside to have a cigarette after the meal (I've given up smoking really but I'll always have about three fags rattling about in a twenty pack on the morning of New Year's Day). I'm grateful for the smoking ban but it has diminished the greasy spoon experience.

Saturday, 25 April 2009


Not only is it a brilliant word it is, as of today, my favourite ice cream flavour also. As done by this place anyway.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Brand new, you're retro

The other day I bought an album of songs by The Left Banke. I'd seen their records for years at fairs and never investigated but recently I heard "Evening Gown" and couldn't believe how good it was. The song is quite raucous by Left Banke standards, featuring an upfront bassline, a fairly reckless electric piano solo and some very garage rock screams. Most of their songs don't feature much in the way of guitar relying instead on strings and keyboard. While reading around the band the phrase chamber pop cropped up. As in: The Left Banke are performers of chamber pop. I'd heard the phrase before, but thinking about it a lot of my favourite songs are in this style, with possibly the biggest and the baddest being "Eleanor Rigby". "Eleanor Rigby" is the first song I can remember hearing, though I'm sure not the first song I heard. It was certainly my favourite Beatles song for years. It's so different to any other song then or now. Even other songs by the Beatles. I heard an instrumental version of it on one of the anthology albums (the second I would guess) and it sounded eerie, as though the instruments were playing themselves after all the musicians had gone home. It's a powerful song.

Despite loving the song so much I didn't buy Revolver until I was about 17 or 18. Not sure why not, possibly because when I was young I didn't realise that the Beatles had released normal albums like other groups. At around the same time I was going through all their other albums and getting pretty blown away. I would say my acquaintance with the Beatles occurred in three phases. When I was a little kid the simple ones like "I Feel Fine", "Drive My Car" and "Norwegian Wood". Then when I was older but still not a teenager the slightly weirder stuff like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "I am the Walrus". And finally things like "Why Don't We Do it in The Road" and "Helter Skelter" which I had trouble believing were by the Beatles. It was probably sometime during the second phase when I saw the Yellow Submarine. I remember my mum explaining to me that the film and the songs were the way they were because the Beatles had been using a drug called LSD. I think I was about ten. She cracks me up.

Back to Revolver. I'm neutral when it comes to the whole Lennon vs. McCartney debate but I think this album would pose a problem for hardcore Lennonists. Three of McCartney's song here: "Eleanor Rigby", "Got to Get You into My Life" and "Here, There and Everywhere" are just awesome and all in totally different ways. After "Eleanor Rigby" though it's one of Lennon's that really caught me: "Tomorrow Never Knows". This is another one of those songs that I could hardly believe was the Beatles when I first heard it. I knew that backwards guitars were a cliche of sixties rock but the bit where they come into this just used to give me a chill, and on a good day it still can. And that reminds me, the post title, when I first heard this it was as fresh to me as any music. I remember Nick Hornby rating "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" on the grounds that, as a little known Bob classic, it gave you some idea of what listeners in the sixties must have experienced. I just don't get that. The first time you hear something is the first time you hear it. Maybe genres grow up around innovators and some of the impact is lost but even though The Beatles are just blowing around in the air the whole time I still found most of their stuff a revelation. They're probably the most famous band in the world but it's not as though you'll ever hear "Long, Long, Long" or "I've Just Seen a Face" on the radio.

Read this book.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Look into my eyes

I first saw a picture by Akiyoshi Kitaoka in an article about acid blotter artwork in The Observer (I think) ages ago. Nice, isn't it? I'll do a post featuring an artist who isn't Japanese at some point.

Friday, 17 April 2009

The first cut is the deepest

Transparent Radiation by Spacemen 3 is my favourite song. The Perfect Prescription was my first exposure to the band and immediately became one of my favourite albums (it still is). Transparent Radiation is the mellowest of tracks made up of languid violins, wistful twanging and gently strummed guitars that occasionally rise from their torpor when the vocals call for it. My copy of the album was mis-labelled so I was unaware that it was a cover version for a few years. After I heard I sought out the Red Krayola and at first only found God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It, which was a pretty big disappointment (apart from maybe the track Save the House). So I wasn't too surprised, when I finally got hold of The Parable of Arable Land, that their version of Transparent Radiation was tuneless toss.

My fairly low opinion of the Red Krayola has been slightly revised since then. A couple of years ago I bought Sonic Sounds for Subterraneans (a compilation put together by Pete Kember) and heard a different, much straighter, Red Krayola version of Transparent Radiation that he had obviously used as his template. While I still don't rate it above the Spacemen 3 version I found it strangely affecting, especially the vocal which is normally Mayo Thompson's major weakness. The second cause for a possible rethink was the inclusion on a recent MOJO cover cd of the song Hurricane Fighter Plane. I remember noting it as okay on my initial listen of The Parable of Arable Land but as I didn't go back to the album repeatedly this never got the chance to develop into anything. When it was presented to me away from the free form freakout surroundings of its mother album I was totally hooked on it.

Finally on Transparent Radiation a mention of the lyrics. Half the time lyrics for me are a secondary consideration. When they're done well obviously it's fantastic (Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan) but a lot of my favourite music is accompanied by fairly dumb (not bad) lyrics. The Stooges, for instance. And Spacemen 3 for that matter. Transparent Radiation's lyrics are wholly surreal - when I looked them up I discovered that what I'd been mumbling along to the music for years was, incredibly, almost totally correct. They're very strange and not at all dumb though I admit I don't really know what they mean. I think it's fair to assume that they're a recollection of an acid trip, so about as impenetrably personal as it's going to get.

Die Tasche

I was in a shop queue yesterday and the lady in front of me was German. When the girl at the till asked her if she wanted a bag she just didn't respond and you could tell it was because she didn't understand what she was being asked. Afterwards I thought to myself that, as someone who's trying to learn German, I should know the word for bag. As it happens I had heard the word before but had forgotten it. So I've nailed it to this blog posting to see if that'll help me remember in future.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Enriched with Strontium 90

My comic reading years were concerned pretty much with one title: 2000AD. I had been getting the Beano but then, on the way to see a Superman I and II double bill, we stopped off at the newsagents only to find that my brother's copy of the Dandy hadn't come in. Instead they offered him 2000AD. My brother, who is two years younger than me, didn't really go for it but I realised straight away it was all over for Dennis and Gnasher. Independently I think one of my friends got into it round about the same time and for the next three years (until I moved away) every Saturday morning I would buy the comic, devour it in about 15 minutes and then shoot round to my friend's to discuss all the stories. I only stopped reading it on returning from my first term at college: there was a pile of them waiting for me and I just couldn't be bothered.

It was a great period to discover it, Alan Moore was a regular contributor and while our absolute hero Brian Bolland had finally defected to DC I was utterly blown away by Carlos Ezquerra's artwork for Judge Dredd. Nemesis the Warlock (the story featured on the cover there) was drawn by Jesus Redondo. I loved this version of Nemesis (book II) but the best was book III. This was drawn by the original artist Kevin O'Neill whose artwork in earlier issues (progs to the initiated) was very "clean". On his return for book III his artwork was very different - more alien - and I wasn't sure at first but looking back it's one of my favourites. The same goes for Mike McMahon's art for Slaine. All other comic art was very pedestrian in comparison, especially your typical Marvel and DC stories. The last great artist 2000AD featured before I stopped reading was Simon Bisley whose work for either Slaine or the ABC Warriors would probably have to be in every comic geek's top ten.

I dealt with the insane levels of violence as easily as any ten year old boy would but I started reading just in time to catch the Judge Dredd epic "The Apocalypse War". Throughout the eighties I was quite freaked out about the prospect of nuclear war and this particular story probably didn't help any. But on the plus side I was able to spell the word apocalypse from a relatively early age.

I hear it's pretty poor now - they went through a period of killing off big characters, Johnny Alpha and Wulf Sternhammer being the highest profile victims. I remember my amusement when one of my friends outed Johnny and Wulf but I couldn't deny the logic: they got out of the bounty hunting business and settled down together in a log cabin - swapping their body armour for matching Hawaiian shirts. Nothing wrong with that.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Utagawa Kuniyoshi

I say this nearly every time I walk out of an exhibition, but I think this is the most awesome exhibition I’ve ever seen. I was never as gripped by the whole ninja phenomenon as some of my teenage contemporaries. However, I was quite a big comic fan. In fact when I was a kid I wanted to be comic illustrator. That didn’t happen but I still like to think I know a good bit of draughtsmanship when I see it and on this score Kuniyoshi is a genius. Most of the pictures, especially the ones of warriors battling supernatural creatures, look like they could have been taken from a comic strip. The inclusion of text within most of them and the way some are diptychs or triptychs strengthens the effect.

The colours are so bright and the style so intricately psychedelic it's hard to believe they're about 150 years old. I've never felt the urge to have a tattoo done but if I did I'd now have to have one of these pictures or something very like it.

Kuniyoshi produced an incredible 10,000 images in his career. The exhibition is showing over 150 and I found just about every single one worth looking at (I wasn't that bothered about some of the landscapes) but highlights for me were:

Last stand of the Kusunoki heroes at Shijo-Nawate
Three warriors charge to their deaths in a hail of arrows.

Seabed at Daimotsu Bay
Drowned warriors sitting on the sea bed after a battle. A huge anchor used by one of the warriors to drown himself after the defeat rests in the background.

Earth Spider conjuring Demons to torment Minamoto Raiko
The demons are brilliant - they look like so much modern illustration. The Earth Spider appears in a couple of other pictures.

Princess Takiyasha summons a skeleton spectre to frighten Mitsukuni

Some others that I didn't get the titles of: one of a bunch of turtles that have the faces of famous Kabuki actors (it wasn't permitted to produce straight portraits of actors), a brothel scene in which the prostitutes and their clients are sparrows (prostitutes being yet another group that it was forbidden to depict), a general committing suicide by shoving his sword into his mouth and thrusting himself onto a landmine. The card beside it notes that this manner of death was completely new at the time. The image is used for the cover of the exhibition's catalogue. Again, I always say this but I think I'll buy the catalogue for this one. It'd be a perfect desert island book crammed as it is with hundreds of mesmerisingly beautiful illustrations.

As if the exhibition wasn't amazing enough the still very recognisable "Carry On" temptress Fenella Fielding was taking in the show while I was there. Wow.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Countdown Conundrum

I've just seen Countdown without Richard Whiteley or Carol Vordermann for the first time. How weird. End of an era. I've no idea who the new people are at all, though the girl doing the letters seems to be Gwyneth Paltrow. It's like switching the telly on to find it showing a foreign channel or something. At least whatshername's still in Dictionary Corner.

Werewolf of London

Jack the Ripper; obviously it was Sherlock Holmes. Consider the evidence. Holmes had the medical expertise that is often attributed to Jack the Ripper (Holmes and Watson first meet at a hospital laboratory where Holmes has been beating corpses with a stick to study how they bruise). He is emotionally detached to the point of callousness. Holmes is prone to depression which he attempts to relieve by injecting himself with cocaine. He is never known to have formed a sexual relationship with anyone. He was accustomed to prowl about the East End in disguise, trawling the lowlife there. He would have had a close professional acquaintance with the investigating officers and the inside knowledge that would bring - allowing him to stay one step ahead of his pursuers. He possessed the arrogance that would have risen to the challenge of committing the perfect murder (several times). It all fits.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Tell me where all past years are

According to proper boffins such as Stephen Hawkings time travel isn't necessarily impossible but the mere fact that we've never met any time travellers coming back to check out the 21st century probably means we don't invent time travel. I can't remember where I first heard it but isn't it a great theory that this is what UFOs are? The most common occupants of UFOs are Greys and it's easy to see them as what humans might evolve into in a few thousand years. Big brains on spindly, hairless little bodies. The result of a species separated by technology from a world polluted by all the crap we're constantly hearing about and maybe a few nuclear wars as well? Why don't they stop and say hello? They've probably got a rule along the lines of the prime directive in Star Trek or they're worried about stepping on butterflies like in the Ray Bradbury story.

Despite the unlikeliness of me ever hitching a ride on a time machine I have given some thought to my top destinations for a time holiday:

Ancient Rome
At some point in the reign of Hadrian, pop along to see a show at the Colosseum maybe? Check out a few second hand scroll shops, try and pick up copies of Sulla's memoirs and Claudius' Etruscan dictionary.

Monterey Pop Festival
It may seem trivial but I'd really like to see Jimi Hendrix play. Maybe this is too iconic a performance, it might be better to see him in a small club in London. Or Bob Dylan at the Manchester Free Trade Hall.

Round about 3000 BC. To see what it was (is) really for. And to see it in pristine condition.

The Crucifixion
And the resurrection. Which I don't believe in, but just to make sure.

Elizabethan London
To see the medieval city in all its spiky and highly flammable glory. See Shakespeare & Co putting on a play. Eat roast boar at one of those frost fairs on the Thames. Go for a gloat at traitors gate.

Late Cretaceous

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Thou shalt not wear flares

I can't stand punks. As in punk rock. As in what happened in England in 1976. I was too young to be into the music at the time and not much is very appealing now. The Buzzcocks, The Jam, Joy Division: all three have been my favourite band at some point. But the Clash and the Pistols? I just can't take them seriously. By that I mean I find them ridiculous. Johnny Rotten with his "mad" stare, he admits his act was pantomime. His significance? Working class youth's voice had never been heard. Apart from maybe the Beatles. And every other beat band. Attitude? I know the Stones are now a hideous spectacle but Keith Richards' declaration that they were not old men and that they were not concerned with petty morals. What you'd expect from any rock and roll outlaw. But at his own trial? Addressing the judge? A bit more impressive than obliging the simpering Bill Grundy with a few swear words. God that clip's toe curling.

It was thirty years ago today

People of a certain age are currently freaking out (understandably) about the fact that the Stone Roses' first album is twenty years old. This soundtrack's thirtieth anniversary shares the same year and probably a slighly smaller place in some of the same people's affection.

It's the first album I owned, and I think I saw the film at the cinema. I picked up a copy at a jumble sale last summer and finally got around to playing it yesterday (I've just got around to sorting out my stereo, on a little table and everything).

My favourite songs remain "Movin' Right Along" and then "Can You Picture That" by Dr Teeth & Electric Mayhem - the rest is competently performed sentimental slush. While Fozzy and Kermit's duet is still as catchy and amusing as ever Electric Mayhem's effort seems rather tame now, my taste in rock music having become slightly heavier in the intervening years. Still, well worth fifty pence.