Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Islanders

Bristol Old Vic

The Islanders, launched without very much fanfare in the studio area of Bristol's Old Vic and transferring to Edinburgh for the summer, is a charming piece of performance art that does exactly what it says on the tin.

The tin, in this case, containing blue paint the exact colour of the sky on the Isle of Wight.

Amy Mason performs a spoken narrative, ostensibly about a holiday she and her boyfriend took in 1999, but spreading out into a general evocation of teenage life at the turn of millennium.  It's clearly real life that's being transmuted into art here: the post cards and snapshots which flash from the powerpoint are obviously the real McCoy. There is an impressive specificity to it: real and funny without seeming to try too hard;  two teenagers in a bedsit, living mostly off Hubba-Bubba ("please don't hate us") and eating only orange things, deciding to try to have a grown-up holiday.

The boyfriend in question, Eddie Argos ("he's in a band, they've done quite well") provides the other half of the show. He interleaves her narrative with his songs, telling his side of the story, accompanied on guitar by "our friend Jim". Amy mentions that she is relieved when they split up because it meant that she would no longer have to listen to Billy Bragg every day. Eddie's performance is perhaps what you might expect a Billy Bragg fanatic to mutate into after thirteen years of knowing better: very expressive, strongly rhymed, unselfconscious speaking songs. (He issued a killer cover of Between the Wars to celebrate the recent happy event, but wound up this evening with a record of the bard of Barking himself singing "I was twenty one years when I wrote this song...") Eddie's memories of the holiday are mostly upbeat; Amy remembers it as a disaster. She remembers being scared to death on a theme-park ride; he thinks she was weeping with excitement. I particularly enjoyed his description of staying in a hotel for the first time, not quite knowing what the rules are ("B &; B / Anxiety") which rang slightly truer that Amy's fears that the room was haunted.

I overheard some punters on the way out complaining that they couldn't see where the piece was going or what the point of it was, which seemed rather harsh. I suppose if you were expecting it to build to a  big revelation or plot twist, you'd be disappointed. I thought it was as nice a memory piece as I've come across: a poignant evocation of a particular time and place and sub-culture and yes, it does seem strange to us incredibly boring old people to hear grown-ups looking back on 1999 as the olden days. Like all autobiographical fiction, it's less about the memories themselves than about the process of remembering them.

I liked what that fellow was doing with his guitar, said a man I had been chatting to in the bar before hand.

He is a very famous folk singer, I explained.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

In Memoriam: Margaret Thatcher


Chumbawamba crept up on me. Mick and Lester kept opening Folkwaves with "Add Me", back in the days when we were still allowed to have folk music on the wireless. They were never really folkies, but in their final phase, their stripped down, acoustic, often acapella music fitted better in folk clubs than anywhere else. It's not that big a jump from using electronically sampled speech and sounds in your punk records to incorporating fragments of "They Sent Him To The War To Be Slain" and "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill" into your acoustic set. Not that they were ever exactly punks, either. They did some straight folk-songs: I adore the song of the Idris Strikers on English Rebel Songs: so raw and artless, part way between a football song and a Morning Star editorial, sung so sweetly and with such respect. But they remained entirely sceptical about the whole concept of folk music. Their first folkish album was called "Readymades", which give the clue to what was going on. 

When I first saw them at the Bristol South Bank I honestly didn't know their history; when the support singer claimed that they had saved his life -- the police had knocked him down at a demo, and if that song had not been playing on the radio, he might not have found the strength to get up again -- I was only vaguely aware that Tubthumping was widely regarded as the worst record every made. (Actually, like everything else they ever did, it's a brilliant, witty piece of work, but not something you want taken out of context and used as a sing a long football album.) I truly hadn't heard of the Prescott Incident. I only knew that their response to the London bombings was one of the most touching political songs I'd ever heard.

I assume it was the chart success of Tubthumping that gave them them the freedom to do whatever they wanted, politically engaged folk albums and politically albums; and that irony is part of the point of what they were doing. They told stories between the songs at gigs of how they'd allowed records to be used in adverts for companies they didn't like and then donated the money to radical causes. What they did, better than anyone, is create what would in the 60s have been called Happenings; using their minor celebrity to make points. The Bono teeshirts at Glastonbury; chanting "Free Mumia Abu-Jamal" in the middle of a chorus on the Letterman show.

I'm not sure when this final record was made. Since it contains a little fragment in Spanish called "Pinochet mourns from beyond the grave" I assume it must be later than 2006: after Readymades but before The Boy Bands Have Won, in other words. It's the last of their Happenings. They'd been saying at concerts for years that they had recorded some songs to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher, and, if you gave them a fiver and wrote your address on a piece of paper, they'd send it to you on the morning after "the glorious day". Sure enough, on Tuesday morning, a neat little envelope with the Chumba logo appeared on my door mat.

It's basically a ten minute EP, with something in common with the the Smash Clause 29 sound collages and something in common with their later acoustic sound. It's basically two new-old songs a couple of fragments and a lot of noises off. "So Long..." is a twinkly swingy musical comedy skit ("Goodbye, goodbye; it's so familiar to see you lie"); "The Day the Lady Died" is pretty much only there for the title, which will make anyone who knows Chumbawamba's back catalogue smile. "Waiting For Margaret To Go" is an impression of the early home life of our own dear prime minister, not entirely unlike the Larkin song on Boy Bands Have Won (which it sounds a bit like as well). Its a clever and oddly poignant song with lots of pointed lyrics ("grocers and methodists lay her down low") which could merit a posthumous release as a single. But its the sampled sound scape which really makes the record, partly because of its cleverness but mostly because it reminds us of the older Chumbawamba sound. The hint of Ding-Dong the Witch is Dead wafting over perfectly chosen quotes. (I shall go orn and orn and orn ; and the still cringe making attempt to perform the Dead Parrot sketch). 

It deserves to be more widely heard than by those of us who handed over our fivers at long-ago concerts. Like everything they did, it holds different things perfectly in balance: the sweet harmony of the tunes; the wit of the lyrics; the conceptual art cleverness behind the whole idea; and the genuine, uncompromising satirist's rage holding everything together. The whole thing only runs to ten minutes, and one wishes that Mark Radcliff or someone could it in its entirety on the wireless. I bet they would do something really funny with the royalty cheque.