Sunday, October 29, 2017

When Rock Went to College - a Lancaster musical education

Last week marked the launch of this tremendous book about our musical education. 

Growing up in Lancaster we were incredibly blessed to have a major live music venue right on our doorstep; one that all the major touring bands would play at. At the time, of course, we took it for granted. We assumed it was what universities did. And that it was the dividend for having all these hippies invade our small proud northern city. The truth was it was a perfect storm of circumstances, sparked initially by the ambition of a young entertainments officer, Barry Lucas.

From when he booked The Who in 1970 through the next decade and a half, Barry put Lancaster on the musical map, giving youngsters like me the chance to see the some of my favourite bands, including The Jam, Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen and The Cure, and to walk home afterwards. They were the ones I saw. The ones I missed through accident, apathy or stupidity included the Two Tone tour, the Clash, the Smiths and U2.

At the launch party we were treated to some of Barry’s stories, told with great warmth and generosity, including how the University blocked the Rolling Stones, how The Who sent sandwiches to an anti-Vietnam war vigil in Market Square and that U2 were the nicest band to deal with.

The two questions he gets asked more than any other are - why Lancaster? and, why did it stop? I've sort of answered the first one, it became a mixture of chance, luck, destiny and hard work. The Great Hall was just the right size for the right type of band touring at the time, and a stop off after Manchester on the way up to Scotland, the team also earned a reputation for looking after the artists and the promoters clearly liked dealing with Barry. But something else contributed to that. The Lancaster crowd was appreciative of good music, creating an unmistakable 'Lancaster stomp' and often giving support bands a chance (except Duran Duran, who were booed off and gobbed on by the local punks), and were a usually happy blend of town and gown.

My copy of the book arrived earlier in the week, so I had a good look through and know the answers to those key questions. But there are loads more tales in the book - beautifully curated by Paul Tomlinson - and plenty of memories will be sparked by the enjoyment of seeing the old ticket stubs, photos and posters displayed inside. I can strike off The Triffids from the list of all-time favourite bands I wish I'd seen. Apparently I saw them support the Bunnymen in 1984, but I only really discovered them when I lived in Western Australia five years later. If you saw one of your favourite bands and don't remember, does it still count?

I saw a few old faces in the crowd at the launch, including the staff of the legendary Ear Ere Records, and here's my belated disclaimer - I am chuffed to bits to have my contribution to the book included, a tribute to that iconic shop. More though, it was good to go along with my old pals Jim Warwick and Dave Tinkler to reminisce about our own memories of gigs gone by. 

Those friends, that record shop and this live music experience have formed where I am today and I'm eternally grateful.

Fact fans: the last ever gig at the Great Hall was New Order in 1985, I missed that one too.

You can buy the book from the publisher, here.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Matt Johnson's Intertia Variations at Home

Sat in the audience at cinema 1 of Manchester's Home on Monday I pondered the thought that I knew next to nothing about one of the most interesting and compelling artists of my generation. I was absorbed by Matt Johnson's The The, especially the Infected album and particularly Heartland. It also gave me a devotion to music video that inspired me to launching a magazine that celebrated its craft. It made my mixing pop and politics list from 2014.

But even back then his interviews with the music press were sparse and his albums sporadic. Most other bands I liked, I knew loads about. But while there was an intensity to his music, there was a lot he was holding back.

I saw him once in a cafe in Shoreditch and someone in the office I was working in told a story about him owning a building around the corner and that he was making music for films. A true enigma. But one with a whole story of his own as to why these long periods of inertia set in.

It was a special event, a screening of the documentary about him, The Inertia Variations, directed by Johanna St Michaels, his ex-partner and mother to their son, Jack. It only worked, he explained, because of the intimacy they'd shared and nature of their relationship. The result is a personal and emotional film about Matt, but also about the creative process. It's an incredibly atmospheric piece of work, occasionally reflective and never sycophantic.

In the talk afterwards, chaired very well by Jason Wood, the head of film at Home, he spoke a great deal more about his work to try and stop the encroachment of east London by developers. On a new build site of an expanding city, we forget that much of what we enjoy that is new doesn't come at the expense of what went before. For now, at least.

Never a prolific performer, Matt has announced some live dates next year, including three in London, the No6 Festival in Portmerion and, he hinted, something in Manchester. Yes, please. Johnny Marr was in the audience and I didn't notice him shaking his head.

Anyway, there's an interview with him from Uncut, here, and a really good piece here from the ever excellent Northern Soul website.

The problem with a new centre party

It's been three weeks since I promised a blog about the problems faced by any new centrist party. In that time, another new movement has been unleashed to great social media fanfare and not much more. I dare say more will follow. This at least points to an undeniable pent up demand for something as an alternative to this shambles of a zombie Tory administration under Theresa May, and to the hubristic, infantile socialism of the Corbyn project.

But here's the first problem with the centrists. It's become like the far left of the 1980s, with a Heinz 57 of varieties of politically pure programmes: I discovered recently that the SDP is still a thing; there's Renew, which stood in Battersea in 2017 and got 7.4% of the vote; a brief flurry on Twitter for the Democrats, of which ex-journalist and SpAd James Chapman was Rogue One; then there's the Radicals, started by accident by Economist writer Jeremy Cliffe.

And aside from new parties there are new movements around which the core unifying ideas can coalesce, More United and Open Britain, both of which I'm a subscriber to, as well as being the proud owner of a Centrist Dad t-shirt.

Chris Deerin on UnHerd helpfully refers back to a piece from a few years ago that aligned our parties into four far more coherent and equally representative groups. Left, Liberal, Christian Democrat and the National Front or UKIP. This was pre-Brexit, and we have been rather lulled into the false dichotomy that our society has become divided into the two defining camps of Remainers and Leavers, a fault line that this analysis claims broadly persists. As ever, I think it's more complicated than that.

As Stephen Bush commented in the New Statesman, all of these projects are avoiding the issue: "(As) yet another upper-middle-class bloke (sets up) ...  a political party. My suspicion, which may be unfair, is that the real reason why people keep doing this is that they look at the prospects for internal change in the big two and think it is all too difficult. So they set up a new party, not to fix the problem but as a rather public form of therapy."

Similarly, there are the Labour moderates who seem to be determined to cling on - the phrase quoted at me was not to retreat from anti-semites, but to fight (or campaign to put Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in Downing Street and hope you don't get purged). Stubborn pride and fear that there isn't a social base for an alternative seems to be holding them back.

Another spectre that haunts the British centre is that of Emmanuel Macron. For want of a charismatic leader for the British equivalent, inevitably thoughts turn to the potential of a number of generals in search of an army, be that Nick Clegg, Chuka Umunna or Liz Kendall. The flaws of each, and any alternative, make the task ever harder.

Then there is the challenge of our electoral system. The latest poll shows Labour and Conservative on 42% each, a remarkable hegemony for a two party system that is profoundly unloved.

Squeezed between these are the Liberal Democrats, tainted by coalition, lacking a core vote, but occasionally in receipt of a tactical vote or a local vote. At 100,000 members any centrist, pro-European political party has to accommodate the LibDems and give that movement a shot of purpose, other than just being the alternative.

The only set of circumstances that could make this work seem devilishly complex, yet marvellously simple: persuade a significant group of MPs to resign from their parties, cross the floor to the Liberal Democrats and mount a reverse takeover of the party machinery (including a name change) to campaign on a platform of resisting Brexit, reforming immigration, more devolution and a break with the tired old politics of discredited Mayism, a disastrous Brexit and save the country from Corbyn.

Waiting for that moment is maddening, but here's Chris Deerin again on the lessons from the failure of the SDP and the recent inspirations: "Quite: fail better. If the politicians lack the guts to bring about change, perhaps the answer is to focus on a bottom-up movement. That’s what drove Macron’s success, and Ukip’s, and Corbyn’s, and the extraordinary surge in support for campaign in Scotland. All of them brought new people into politics, tapped into public disillusionment with what already existed, and went on to bend the system to their will. The evidence shows that when voters feel disenfranchised they are willing to give the new a fair hearing."

The reason this has taken three weeks to write is because it is such a crux for so many in politics. I wonder how this would play out locally and I start to wince, which is where another problem lies. That's the problem laid out before us, but it won't get any easier by ignoring it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Blackburn Rovers, overcoached, and not experienced enough at winning

The old fellah behind us in the Riverside drips with sarcasm and berates this team with a cutting savage wit. But he said something to us at half time that struck home for me; Tony Mowbray’s side is overcoached. They work too hard on the complicated things that they’ve forgotten to get the basics right.

The same ball lofted in towards the useless Danny Graham. Ryan Nyambe’s desperate seeking out of a square ball or a back pass to Mulgrew. It all smacks of a rigid training ground plan that has no alternative.

What’s worse, looking through the team, is that there are no winners. Who has won anything? Who has been part of a strong, sustained winning team? Mulgrew and Caddis at Celtic? No, that doesn’t count.

That was awful stuff. This division is where we truly deserve to be, get used to it.

PS - fair play to Plymouth fans for making that trip in such numbers.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Not fit to wear the shirt?

There’s a word that I’ve come up against in a child-rearing and mental health context recently that I haven’t quite been able to shake.

Catastrophise.

I could add the dictionary definition here for you, but here’s what I think it means. To react to something disappointing, some kind of setback, in a completely over-the-top and irrational way. To deduce from one event or situation that there is a catastrophe, a crisis, a disaster.

That’s what happened at Boundary Park, Oldham, yesterday. We lost 1-0. We deserved to lose. The performance was way below what Rovers fans have come to expect this season (more on that later). At the final whistle, fans near me were swearing, shouting, venting. The cry was ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’. During the game there were people around me shouting for multiple players to be subbed off, even when we only had one more change to make.

Rewind to last month’s trip to Shrewsbury. The team were undeservedly cheered off the pitch. Personally I thought that was a far worse performance than Oldham and we were very lucky to get a point. We didn’t deserve anything.

Would they have been lauded yesterday at Oldham if Elliot Bennett hadn’t missed an open goal? Or Peter Whittingham’s shot bounced under the crossbar and in and if somehow we managed to not fluff a goalmouth scramble? Probably. Sport is all about fine margins, but ultimately about scoring the goals, or winning the race, or building the points total.

I’ve got my own opinions about the players we’ve got, and I respect that my view is as subjective and potentially flawed as anyone else’s, but the following may put me at odds with the consensus:
  • I like Peter Whittingham, he rarely gives the ball away, he creates space and makes good passes. I don’t expect him to run fast any more than I expect David Raya to take good throw-ins. 
  • Harry Chapman can glide past the first player, but not the second. He’s got a petulant streak and I don’t think we should start with him. 
  • Bradley Dack is great. We need more of him and he contributes something to every game he plays in. If we go on and do well, he will be key. 
  • Defensively, Charlie Mulgrew is a liability. If he doesn’t take a good free kick or a corner, and he didn’t yesterday, then he’s not much better in a game than the hapless Elliot Ward, who gets all the blame and no credit for anything he contributes.
  • Richie Smallwood, battler though he is, gives the ball away too much. Jack Byrne taught him a lesson in how to power a midfield engine room yesterday. 
  • Danny Graham has nothing to offer at this level.
The trouble is, we’re a third division team now. I thought the result yesterday was disappointing. The performance was inadequate. The reaction though was depressing. I’m up for this season and I’m prepared for more days like this. How much of this will be forgotten if we beat bottom of the table Plymouth on Tuesday? Will it be a return to form and a team of world beaters again? Time for us all to toughen up and stop catastrophising.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The problem with the Conservative Party

This could be a very long blog, such are the depths and the extent of the problems "in" the Conservative Party, but this series of remarks are intended primarily to address the problem "with" each party. That said, the evidence is plentiful. Given I've been up close and personal with six different ministers during their party conference in Manchester, the insights and observations just keep coming thick and fast. In some cases 'thick' being the operative word. I don't honestly believe that the Tories are evil, nor do I think they are the 'stupid' party, but their collective and individual ability to commit acts of great stupidity simply reinforce the view that they are (to quote one commentator this week) "malevolent privileged scumbags". It is the gift that keeps on giving to their political opponents.

The embodiment of all of this is Boris Johnson; too clever by half, boorish, bumbling and yet deeply loved by the activists. Sometimes his excesses can be tempered by the boring sensible technocrats in his own cabinet - likable ministers like Greg Clark and Damian Green - or even in his own family. Though his more clever younger brother Jo committed a gaffe about students having the choice to live frugally, which played directly into the narrative that they are detached from how most people live their lives.

At the start of the 2017 conference there appeared to be a deep desire for this gathering to reset their core values, to take their base philosophy apart and come up with a sensible vision of the future. In so doing it would discover the reasons why their support among every expanding demographic is declining, this, from CapX is good on that. Fair play then to Tim Montgomerie and his new venture UnHerd and this piece on ten things every Conservative should dwell on; respect to Roger Scruton for this radio piece on what conservatism is (they are for responsibility, liberals for freedom, socialists for equality); here is Ruth Davidson on reforming capitalism; and probably the second most interesting Tory politician around is George Freeman, who created the Big Ideas Festival which Jamie Barttlett does a decent job of dissecting here.

But none of that has been the story. None of that seems to have any cut through. The mess of Brexit, the weak divided government and an aimless Prime Minister was summed up in the omnishambles of her conference speech. The coughing, the stunt with the P45, the letters on the backdrop falling off, the coded body language of her cabinet members all rendered all of the above efforts utterly useless. Even her own laudable policies to tackle big systemic issues like housing, skills and energy prices will have fallen apart before I've hit 'Publish'.

But this is the biggest learning of the Tories, despite all of this, they're going to stick with Theresa May for a couple of years. They're going to torture this poor and unwell woman because they can, but also because they have no alternative yet. But they also have the time, they have the one thing the party exists for - to secure power and to never let it go.

The topline narrative is that the Tories are playing out a succession drama but as Matthew D'Ancona says they still need to confront that deeper and more profound existential question and develop a vision of the future that people can get: "That proposition needs to be explained in language that speaks to every home and those who long for their own home; to people who believe with every fibre in their being that they have no stake in the status quo, and that more Toryism means more poverty, more inequality, more misery."

The trouble is, this is the sort of thing that usually goes on inside an opposition party as they dust themselves down after a defeat. The immediate problem for the Tories is that they are in government and don't seem to have the foggiest as to what to do.

Next: the problem with a new centre party