My pick for the times would be ‘Don’t Trust Banks’ by garage-rockers Apache Dropout. Everyone hates the banks, and the song’s weedy vocals and cruddy production values encapsulate a feeling of being squashed into submission by financial institutions beautifully. I dedicate it to the poll conducted last year by the organisation Positive Money which showed that just over 1 in 10 MPs accurately understand how money is created in our economic system.
To the uninitiated, 97% of our money supply is created by private banks when they issue loans. They create money out of thin air, allocate where it goes, and then charge interest on top. Thank goodness they’re such trust-worthy, socially responsible institutions, or else the banks would reign supreme, we’d have ever-increasing debt levels and inequality, unaffordable house prices, squeezed public services, and the continued evaporation of democracy.
Oh well. To quote Apache Dropout: “We must be poor.......again.”
Well, the festive season is now well and truly over, and for many that means it’s time to get back to the reality of having to earn a living and go back to work. Three cheers!
Much of my work ethic and shrewd business acumen appears to have come from my father, Jim. He had a number of different careers throughout his working life, one of which was kick-started by my mother getting pregnant – all plans of being an artist vanished and instead he became a self-employed picture framer, eventually running a workshop and gallery in London Victoria.
The work involved a fair amount of driving around London which I think he liked. His hard-nosed business approach and ability to focus on the job at hand with no distractions is perhaps best illustrated by his once enjoying a cassette of Beethoven's 7th Symphony on the car stereo so much he had to keep driving round the block of the gallery until it finished and he could then park the car and go back in to work.
He employed a team of highly professional and dedicated workers, one of whom had a fascination for Vikings and worked upstairs in the workshop. One day this man proudly descended the spiral staircase sporting a Viking helmet, sword and shield, all beautifully made out of the gallery’s framing supplies and done during work hours.
Another employee who had a reputation for being totally irresponsible asked my father if he'd employ an equally irresponsible friend of his. As anyone in business knows, first impressions from a prospective employer are crucial. During his first meeting with my father, this gentleman proceeded to get so drunk he had to be carried off to bed.
He got the job.
The gallery launched the careers of many exciting young painters and there was nobody else in London producing such high quality, specialized, time-consuming, hand-crafted decorative framing. They were never short of work and had the luxury of having a number of extremely wealthy clients, including Lawrence Olivier, Peter Sellers, Joan & Jackie Collins, Max Bygraves, and others to whom money was no object.
My father under-charged and the business closed. But even so he still talks very fondly of that period of his working life.
Back in the dark ages before Google and YouTube, discovering new music could be a very slow and financially painful business. Seeking out a copy of something you’d read about or remember hearing once on the radio could result in months or even years of traipsing around back-street record shops, music fairs and flea-markets. There was excitement and trepidation felt before listening to it back home where the All-Important Question would finally be answered: Does it live up to expectations, or is it yet another crushing buy which you'll have to dutifully listen to a number of times in the fruitless attempt to justify the cash you've just shelled out for it?
Mercifully to my rescue was a friendship with Colin Davies who ran the fanzine for Fairport Convention founding-guitarist Richard Thompson and conveniently lived only a couple of streets away. Colin had a magnificent record collection, and as an awkward teenager with lank long hair which my mother said made me look like a spaniel, it was a relief to be welcomed by someone whose enthusiasm for music dissolved any potential boundaries which may otherwise have been present from our age difference.
With every visit round his house he’d generously spend the evening loading me up with records to borrow, enthusing about each album with fond anecdotes about being stoned as a student in the 70s at Kingston Polytechnic, his wife Nita rolling her eyes in the background while getting on with the washing, ironing, cooking, cleaning or something else of actual use.
It was through Colin I was first introduced to such delights as The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Eek-A-Mouse, Captain Beefheart, and the short-lived genre of Morris-dance rock fusion which consisted of two records (I only heard one).
Best of all was Bright Phoebus by folk siblings Lal & Mike Waterson which I remember Colin saying sold a total of 200 copies when first released, of which he’d bought two. I recently heard it described as being the 'Sgt Pepper of folk music' which is fitting. However, while The Beatles’ effort is a more pill-popping, heads-in-the-stratosphere affair, Bright Phoebus is a record with its feet firmly planted in mud, the smell of dung in its nostrils, and a keen eye fixed on the weather. It’s unique and sounds nothing like their other recordings, let alone anyone else’s.
The songs are a peculiar assortment, with chirpy country fair sing-a-longs about rubber bands, magicians and sunshine, alongside magnificently bleak tunes about desperate lives in rural landscapes.
The singing is unvarnished. Mike has a warble that sounds like he’s constantly welling-up, which is understandable given his sister’s performance – I get tearful just thinking about it. She’s devastating. Her songs and her voice cut like nothing else I know.
Watching live footage of rock
concerts is generally disappointing I find. The event itself may well be an
exciting euphoric experience where audience and performers are communally and
transcendentally united as one through shared adrenaline sweat-fuelled musical
ecstasy. You don't quite get that though when you're sat watching it on the
telly in the evening with a hot drink and a biscuit and the sound turned low so
as not to disturb your good lady and dog who are conked-out on the sofa snoring
My dissatisfaction established itself around the time when my friends at school
began listening to heavy metal and smoking. Visiting one of their houses
suddenly meant sitting around watching hours of live Led Zeppelin videos which
always climaxed with a 15 minute version of 'Moby Dick', 13 minutes of which
was a drum solo. According to my companions, being there would've been the
equivalent of being in the presence of God, but I was never convinced. I don't
even think the rest of the band were either -their walking off stage during the solo told me all I needed to know
about what it was like to actually be there.
Anyway, attempting some optimism I had a go at watching some of the televised
footage of this year's Glastonbury festival, and to my surprise I'm glad I did
because amongst all the stuff that I can't now even remember who they were was
tUnE-yArDs: florescent face-painted hollering women banging out unpredictable
African-based polyrhythms decked out in ill-fitting multi-coloured home-made
fish-themed outfits, a brass section, distorted electric ukulele and a bass
player who looked half asleep, backed by amateur dancers dressed in cardboard
eye-balls wrapped in a silk sheet.
They were glorious.
I could even turn the sound up a bit as my good lady Kate woke up, mesmerised
by what she was seeing and hearing. I'm always pleased when our tastes coincide
– often while listening to much of the music I love she gives me a look of
someone who wants to punch my ears.
Fiveways seems stuffed to capacity with visual artists and for better or worse I'm yet another one of them. Unfortunately, my own artistic muse has essentially been telling me for many years now that there's little hope of my giving up the day job any time soon.
Never mind, I can always find solace in the example of painters like Spanish National Treasure Antonio Lopez Garcia who seems to make a comfortable living out of his artwork against the odds. Described to me once as “an obsessive nutter”, he'll often spend years to finish a painting. With his sort of work rate, it's impressive he ever has anything to sell at all let alone make a good living from it, and yet that's exactly what he's done for much of his life.
The film 'The Quince Tree Sun' documents one of his long-winded attempts to paint the quince tree growing in his back yard and is by far the best thing I've ever watched about art. Through it's patient, non-judgemental observations of him going about his work, the film manages to offer an expansive view of what it is to be an artist in the modern world - their place and role in society, the modesty and arrogance of the artistic temperament, and the dignity and absurdity of creative endeavour and human existence in general. I think it's magnificent. It was described in a review at the time as being “the cinematic equivalent of watching paint dry”.
One thing I find interesting is Antonio's relationship with music. Although he likes having the radio on as company while he works, he feels it can dilute his ability to be totally present in the moment, affecting his connection with what he's painting. I listen to a lot of music, particularly at home, but sometimes get the sense of it having too much of a cocooning effect from my hearing what's immediately going on outside such as the type of birdsong or the sound of the weather changing, and I'm convinced the more in tune you are with those kinds of noises the more healthier your mental state.
In the end though, I just find having a sing-a-long to some of my all time favourites too much fun to resist, and it seems Antonio is the same – at one point in the film he's visited by his friend and fellow artist Enrice Gran and, after ignoring his advice on how best he should paint the picture, they do a duet of an old favourite of theirs.
My most enjoyable live music experiences have tended to be at gigs where I can jump about ludicrously by the front of the stage alongside a load of fellow ‘dancers’. For some reason I’ve often found getting exhaustedly drenched with sweat and overpriced plastic-beakered lager, having my shoes written off from stamping feet and having my face periodically elbowed from others’ animated limbs to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. However, as I approach 40 I’ve been receiving signs making me wonder if I’m not getting too old for it all, most recently after seeing garage-psych-punk-rock titans Thee Oh Sees in London with my old friend Jonny Voss.
Jonny has always been partial to the delights of a good mosh-pit and has been a long-standing connoisseur of the Thrash, Death and Speed Metal music genres. He’s also by far the most athletic, energetic person I’ve ever known: as a teenager he used to think nothing of swimming a few hundred lengths before a couple of hours cycling in the morning to warm himself up for an afternoon of further strenuous physical activities. Even now as a parent of two young children, he seems to have brain cells that actually still work after the continuous sleep deprivation. What better companion for such a high-energy concert?
Alas, while I was getting knocked about among the barrage of animated bodies near the front of the stage he spent the whole time stood still against a wall saying afterwards he was “too old for all of that.”
When The Bionic Man tells you something like this, the writing seems unavoidably on the wall for mere mortals like me.
Thankfully, one doesn’t always have to be jumping around to receive transcendent live music experiences. Seeing Nina Simone at the Royal Festival Hall a few years ago was a much less energetic affair, and was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. After each song she got up from the piano and stared at us all from the front of the stage, stock still and with a completely blank expression. It was both magnificent and bizarre.
‘Memphis in June’ is from by far the best album I’ve heard of hers although curiously none of the songs on it seem to ever make the greatest hits compilations. Whether the song’s description of sitting in rocking chairs on Oleander-smelling verandas in Memphis is a similar experience to eyeing up the traffic from a doorstep in Ditchling Road, I wouldn’t like to say. If you’ve got Nina going on in the background though, I’d say that’s probably good enough.