Thursday, 21 June 2007

Killing two gigs with one stone

I'm back, from way too long a hiatus caused in equal measure by boredom, writers' block and lack of desire to read the papers. But now, I have been in a state of almost frenzied activity, have a certain degree of inspiration, and have started to buy The Guardian again.

And it is music, rather than politics, history or depression, that I turn to now. I have just returned from a gig in Leam(ington Spa) with three friends which has turned out to be one of the highlights of the year. The reason for the title 'two gigs' is that I was in the same place not a week before, and that too turned out to be a great night. It seems that the Jug and Jester, a pub which I had previously considered a little steep (which is the least of its... foibles), is in fact the venue for some of the best live and local music I have heard, making Wednesday nights a newly significant one where once they had been dominated by slavish all-nighters and people kicked out of Score. Aside from anything else, it has become but one of many incentives for me to be a frequent visitor to Leam in the second year.

The first instance, on the 14th, was prompted by a friend of mine, Gethin Jones - a talented man whom I met through Warwick drama - being on the running order. Having no prior knowledge of his musical abilities, and feeling the natural urge to turn out and support him, I made the journey on the pink bus from the bubble to the Jug. The venue itself is the smallest third of the Jug, away from both the main bars and rather cosy to say the least.

Gethin was on first, and playing a half-hour set of some very heartfelt acoustic folk. He has a soaring voice which conjures up comparisons to Jeff Buckley, laced liberally with spiritually (Gethin, like me, is a Christian) if with greater subtlety. So compelled was I by his talents and honesty - which certainly showed through in both his performance and his 'banter' inbetween numbers - that I bought his album Silence Falls... (2005), on the recommendation of Jack Howson, drama buff, fellow Smiths fan and Gethin's publicist of sorts.
After a brief changeover and a change of drinks, the middle act came on. I had not heard of Lewis Garland and the Kett Rebellion before, but the very sight of a double bass and its stoical player - both sadly rareties these days - was reason enough to be optimistic. They didn't disappoint on a musical level, although the mandolin players (or The Third Man, as I call him) seemed a little obsolete at times. Garland's witty and sarcastic lyrics made me chuckle, and on the final number the entire crowd was participating. Such was the good mood that my friends Jack Coal, Sam Gayton, Liz Sands and I found ourselves in a four-part harmony.

Finally came a completely different kettle of fish in the form of Kanute, in what turned out to be their debut gig. The simplest way to describe their sound would be Arcade Fire, doing electro pop. The band, like the rockers from Montreal, was a seven-piece, consisting of a female vocalist, a keyboard, drummer, guitarist and bassist (normal so far) - with an electric violin and cello in tow, which if nothing else made them intriguing to look at. Then they started playing, and despite my reservations towards electro-pop, this manages to bring a smile to my face and a nod to my head. Their swirling melodies fitted the vocalist very well, and while the cello tended to drown out the violin throughout, this was not reason enough to stop me purchasing their self-titled EP, Kanute (2007).

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The following week, I reconnoitred to Leam and the Jug, this time specifically to see Jaffa Rose play. I was in the company of David Holmes and Matt Reynolds, the latter of whom is rapidly becoming a mentor and great friend to me. At the Jug we were joine by Matt's housemate Dan Welch, who also turned out to see Warwick's finest jazz rock band. I only realised recently that they were Warwick-based (and graduating this summer) having been out of the Bandsoc loop for what amounts to the whole year. Though they are staying together, this was to be their final gig as Warwick students, and I wanted to see what I had missed out on all this time.

The gig started an hour and a half left, which otherwise would have made me leave out of frustration, but my temper was in another country thanks to a cool Bulmers and the safe and prior knowledge that we were in for a treat (God bless MySpace). On first this time around was Air Fiji, a five-piece which sounded like Feeder attempting to do ska - one of their members was a trombonist, and so I, as a fellow player (in the past at least) was naturally more favourable toward him. Their set was littered with indie riffs but was overlayered by sharp bass work from a man whose technique and appearance resembled that of John Paul Jones, thus rendering more amenable chord progressions which usually tend to jar me and make it ever more difficult to listen to Franz Ferdinand, the indie rockers who helped shape my sixth form years.

The second act, Scaffold to the Sky, required a hefty technical changeover, the length of which conjured up literal images of their name as their project and product. When they eventually took to the stage, the band described as 'post-prog' - which on the surface means anything from disco and punk onwards - performed two lengthy numbers of Floydian proportions, laced with classical references as evident in the keyboard solos. The second piece was so long (though not pointless) that I went to the gents after four 'movements' and came out five minutes later with at least another four still to come. Scaffold to the Sky were the most interesting band of the night, and certainly the most acquired taste.
Finally, after much delay and another pint or two courtesy of Matt, Jaffa Rose finally and gloriously took to the stage. Time was against us and so we only caught two songs, but neither pulled any punches. The first, an intricate instrumental, managed to blend a hard rock attitude with quick and spontaneous changes in time signature which seems to be a feature of modern jazz - at least, of the stuff to which I have been exposed. Special kudos must go to both the saxophonist and the manic drummer. For the second song, they added the female vocalist. Having been so impressed with the first song, I had a fear that she would ruin things. I was gladly proved wrong, her voice taking that testosterone-pumped jazz rock and filling the room with a sweeter, more heartfelt counterbalance.

Though we had to depart shortly after, we ended up waiting for the bus home long enough to have made it possible to go back, but sadly we did not. MySpace would have fulfil our Jaffa requirements until the Big Easy on Monday, as would the complimentary EP, Second In Demand (2006). As we headed back to campus, amid the flurry of post-pub bad jokes and stories of hedgehogs selling fridges(?!), we departed safe in the knowledge of a night well spent. It had been Matt's first time in the Jug despite being three years my senior - now, it seems, he will, like me, become a frequent visitor.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

The Bishop's got a point

Now that the exams are over, I can at last get back to the 'real' world and start reading the papers again (after all, what kind of Politics student needs to be up to speed on current affairs?!). In today's Guardian (well, G2, to be pedantic), there was a review of Do Nothing to Change Your Life by the Bishop of Reading. His basic point is that we are all going way too fast; life is losing its purpose and spiritual side because everything, from technology to shopping is based on speed. Life therefore - and this is where my Marxian paraphrasing takes over - becomes more mechanical, people are alienated from their true nature and human misery ensues.

What is the solution? The Right Reverend suggests a number of simple solutions which are designed to make someone's day go slower and thereby make them feel more relaxed and at peace. The ones listed in the article include:
  • Making tea with tea leaves instead of bags
  • Brewing coffee with self-ground beans
  • Baking our own bread
  • Getting out of bed and sitting still for three minutes, doing nothing

All of which make perfect sense. You don't have to be a raving leftie to have noticed that, even relatively speaking, people today are more miserable than before. Maybe it's just a generational thing, maybe it's part of the national spectacle of understated melancholy, but it seems that not a week passed without a survey claiming that depression and mental health cases are at new peaks (then again, you could put most of that down to the garish new 2012 logo - too 80s to say the least).

But here, my love affair with The Guardian hits a pothole. The second half of the article was a cynical slur on the Bishop's suggestions. Though not to the point of utterly rejecting good Christian reason, the author's stance was quite flippant:

"...As I munch my toast and sip my coffee it occurs to me that the bishop means well, but nothing would get done at this pace. For a kick-off, it would have taken God more than six days to create the universe, and what would that have meant? He wouldn't have got Sundat off, that's what."¹

The problem is not the tongue-in-cheek dig at the creation myth or the flippant dismissal of God as somehow being bound by the constraints of time as we are (when in fact he created time). To take issue with these would be to miss the point and make myself look stupid. The point is that Mr. Boggan is adopting the easiest, and laziest, fall-back position of the secular, modern age - what 'men of God' (for want of a better term) say is fine as an idea, but it doesn't have any practical ramifications for our society. So often the wisdom of such people is rejected without a second thought because people either like the speed at which life goes, or would see the alternative as detrimental. The latter case brings to mind The Road To Serfdom by Friedrich von Hayek, which broadly states that any system which does not favour the market leads to the reversal of human development.²

The modern age was based on the ideas of progress, a linear path (originally a liberal one) from feudalism and simplicity to Modernity, the goal of all humans. Speed, first in transport, then communications and so on, became the bulwark of trade and the spread of ideas. Three hundred years later, post-modernism and events have done their fair share to damage - though not destroy - these metanarratives. And yet we still cling to the idea, embodied in contemporary globalisation, that going faster is the best policy. And yet, as so often in the past, speed is the factor which tends to bring humanity to its knees. Financial crises, from the Great Depression (1929-35) to the Asian Crisis (1997), are caused, at heart, by the ability to rapidly move capital in and out of economies - one decision can lead to rapid growth (or, as liberals call it, 'happiness') or deep recession which creates unemployment and misery. Train crashes, computer viruses, stockmarket slumps and traffic jams - all are the result of humans trying to go too fast.

There is a more ideational side to this as well. Not only is speed harmful (to a great extent) for economies and the environment, it is also - I would argue - against human nature. We all like to do things that don't involve expending too much energy - people vote but switch off as soon as the results are in. But there is a fundamental difference between being efficient (or 'quick') and being fast. If we place being speedy at the top of our list, we are prone to make decisions without considering their consequences both for ourselves and others. Look at globalisation - by desiring to do things quicker (by dismantling (wholly unfair) trade barriers), we are compromising our environment at an exponential rate.

Taking time out from the rat race, whether to make time for God or just to give ourselves a break, is no bad thing. It does not means that we should reverse every characteristic of our society, even globalisation itself, and in doing so fulfil Hayek's prophecy. In certain cases, this may not go amiss - though in spheres like economics, new solutions are needed rather than resorting to classic state protectionism. In general, humans should take the Bishop's advice - put the flux of life on hold, and use the time wisely.

References

¹ Steve Boggan, 'Slowing down is harder than it looks', G2, 6 June 2007, p.3 - available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,2096243,00.html. Accessed on June 6 2007.

² Friedrich von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Routledge, 1944) - summary available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Road_to_Serfdom. Accessed on June 6 2007.

The Battle of 1971

People often attack me for hating Led Zeppelin. Well, perhaps 'hating' is the wrong way to put it. Perhaps it's more accurate to say: I believe Led Zeppelin's impact on music is overstated, their abilities as composers and musicians are overrated, and the cult that surrounds them to the extent that they are worshipped as gods is freakish, scary and - frankly - pathetic. In other words, Led Zeppelin get on my tits, and with good reason.

The motivation behind this post was that I was recently leant a copy of Led Zeppelin IV by a friend and fan. The album is also known as 'the fourth album', 'Zoso', 'symbol' or a dozen others because of its blank cover- the band were sick of being seen as a commercial product. Since its release in November 1971 has been heralded as both Led Zep's best work and the album that wrote the book for rock in the 1970s and beyond.

As ever, rather than cosign myself to ignorant opposition, I dived straight in and had a listen. Initially I was impressed - the opening songs, 'Black Dog' and 'Rock And Roll' warrant praise simply for the ferocity and tenacity of John Bonham's drumming. When coupled with Robert Plant's vocals on the breaks, the latter is remarkable.

It is when the album moves from these hard rock numbers to the folky jam 'The Battle For Evermore' that the bottom falls out. Driven by mandolin, Page plays like a spare part while Plant mumbles through meaningless gibberish. Now, a lot of people will say all lyrics in progressive rock are meaningless gibberish - and with the case of Yes they have a point - but I've listen to enough to tease our those who can cut it (like The Who and Pink Floyd) and those who can't.

Now we come to 'Stairway To Heaven'. This song has been frequently voted as the greatest rock song ever. I have heard stories of best friends having all the lyrics tattoed on their backs, I've encountered endless tributes on YouTube and of course, I've heart about the alleged backmasking. For those who aren't in the know, apparently if you play it backwards, there are Satanic messages hidden - the chorus goes 'Here's to my sweet Satan' and then there's something about a shed. Some say coincidence, some say it was deliberate, I'm not sure myself.

With all these expectations, I was utterly underwhelmed. The song starts well, and if it were but an instrumental piece i would be pleasant to while away the hours listening to the great flute work of the underrated John Paul Jones. But Robert Plant comes in, and although the lyrics are a little more captivating, they end up being rambling. And the end of the song is ruined by Plant - at his worst, as here, all he can do is scream inanely (cf. 'Since I've Been Loving You' from Led Zeppelin III (1970)).

'Misty Moutain Hop' starts off trying to be adventurous with the sycopathic beats and oft-synching of guitar and drums. While it is described by AllMusicGuide.com as a 'pounding hippie satire', it ends up sounding like a funeral dirge for stoned has-beens. Plant oscillates widely between a drone and a pointless screech, and the whole band seems badly out of control.

Both 'Four Sticks' and 'Going to California' attempt to set the record straight, the former with Bonham 's impressive high-hat work, the latter with Page's acoustic work. But while both are better, they are hardly heights of perfection since they lack one important factor - John Paul Jones. Whether on bass, keyboards or creating wonderful arrangements, he was the one who kept things ticking over while Messrs. Plant, Page and Bonham lose their focvus with pretentious nothings passed off as songs. It was his keyboard contributions in particular that held the band together, especially as Page's heroin addiction crippled his playing. Without his keyboards, In Through The Out Door (1979) - their last album - would have been unbearable.

The closing song, 'When the Levee Breaks' - on which the band contributed with Deep South blue legend Memphis Minnie - is the only song that matches the openers for quality, although it is a tad too long. It has fantastic moments, especially when Page's two-note riff is matched by Bonham's snare and cymbal combination. But you finish listening wishing that that was how the whole album had been, instead of giving you two good songs and then losing focus to the point of making you bored.

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As you will be aware, I am biased towards The Who. But there is a very good case for saying that Who's Next is better. Released in August of the same year, it represents the apogee of The Who's efforts to fuse different genres (rock, blues and electronica) - if not the apogee of The Who itself.

Who's Next in the first place may not match the ambitions of The Who's two rock operas - the slight Tommy (1969) and worthy rival Quadrophenia (1973). Indeed, much of the album was cobbled together from the Lifehouse Project, a multimedia project of Pete Townshend's whose scope was so great that he suffered a nervous breakdown and was forced to abandon it. But even with that in mind, when you heard the synthesisers at the beginning of 'Baba O'Riley', you sense a progressive mood or air about things. But unlike his glam rock contemporaries, Townshend doesn't let the lyrics get lost in pretension. Their earthiness - echoed in Roger Daltrey's voice - make it instantly listenable and relevant - that's what made 'My Generation' so unique.

Both 'Bargain' and 'Love Ain't For Keeping' are more bluesy numbers (though only just, considering the quickfire drumming of Keith Moon on the former). Though more relaxed, they have a coolness about them, and you get the impression of a band being comfortable - not in the sense that they are not pushing new boundaries, but rather that they are not trying to play above their (immense) abilities.

'My Wife', written by bass player John 'Thunderfingers' Entwistle, is exemplary of both his dark humour and knack for writing hard rock songs. It's a showcase for his horn work, and his vocals are a welcome break from Daltrey gusto, which though highly suited to Townshend's song, don't fit well when it comes to Entwistle's (a textbook example is the infamous 'Fiddle About' off Tommy, which is about child molestation).

'The Song Is Over' switches the emphasis to piano, with Townshend providing vocals and adding a vulnerable edge to the piece. But before this becomes irritating, Moon and Daltrey take control with a powerful double chorus, and from then on they're in control, and rightly so. With Entwistle powering away underneath the madness, the song ends with a razor sharp repeating solo from Moon.

The next three songs are more subdued. 'Getting In Tune' begins on a downer - but not for long. Soon Moon kicks in and the rock swagger reemerges with its head reared, back by a powerful riff and glorious bass guitar. The repetition of the hook in the middle can be slightly irritating after a few spins, but then again most all albums tend to have a dip in the middle. The follow-up, 'Going Mobile', is more modish and for reason is the lesser one on the album - Townshend does sound a little tinny, though his acoustic guitar work makes up for it. 'Behind Blue Eyes', the last of the three, has soleful lyrics which are elegantly delivered by Daltrey, and, as he has personally pointed out, Moon comes in and wittily plays over him in the final third of the song.

Finally, we come to 'Won't Get Fooled Again', which ranks alongside 'My Generation' as The Who's most political song and 'Pinball Wizard' as their most well-known. For me, this anthem cleans the floor with both of them - thoughconsidering the context, it would be foolish to call it their equivalent of 'Stairway To Heaven' (no Satanic messages in here, for one thing). Here all the ingredients that thus far have made the album interesting - synthesisers, power chords, amazing drumming, gripping vocals and a loud, loud bass (something Jones never got the hand of - combine to create a piece of eight-and-a-half-minute magic. Daltrey delivers the lyrics with panache and swagger, and his scream, though now rather clich├ęd, is emphatically brilliant. Moon and Townshend, both stoked up on booze for the live versions, are free to run riot while Entwistle keeps it all together and finds the time to strum some complex improv of his own.

For me, Who's Next wipes the floor with Led Zeppelin IV. It's more focussed (ironically), it is more successful in mixing many different genres without being uneven, the lyrics are more memorable and it achieves an even balance of the four musicians - The Who, like Cream, was a battleground for control between the four musicians expressed in volume, while in Zeppelin Plant and Page dominated to the extent that until Physcial Graffiti (1975) Jones was a shrinking violet. That's not to say Led Zeppelin IV is awful - quite the opposite. But perhaps we should seek to judge great bands more by the actual music and less by their surrounding mystique. Both achieved much, but out of the two it is The Who that have truly lasted.