Thursday, 30 April 2009

MP3 of the Week - The Human Beinz: "Nobody But Me (Pilooski Edit)"

I really ought to have made this an mp3 of the week ages ago.

Remixes (and more recently, re-edits) of classic tunes are very often little more than exercises in gilding the lily. Of course, there are a few instances where such overhauls aren't completely superfluous, even if they never come close to supplanting the original, but it's still pretty rare to find a remix which enhances the source material to such an extent that the end product is better.

Pilooski's re-edit of 'Nobody But Me', the Human Beinz' 1967 cover of the old Isley Brothers tune, is a few years old now. Released on a white label in 2006 as part of the D.I.R.T.Y Sound System's essential 'Dark and Lovely' edits series, its limited availability makes it a fiendishly tough catch nowadays, even on the 'Dirty Edits Vol. 1' compilation (which wasn't much easier to get hold of either). For me, though, it's the best single of the noughties by miles, and one of the best remixes I've ever heard - it doesn't compromise the integrity of the original one bit, and actually manages to improve on it. Pilooski twists, warps and stretches the song into a snarling, swaggering, relentless beast of a tune, wrenching it from its freakbeat roots (check the YouTube clip above) and turning it into something closer to Neu!'s 'Hallogallo' on crystal meth - all juddering, motorik pulse and dubbed-out space-rock noise. I'm a fairly clean-living soul these days, yet whenever I listen to this, I'm overwhelmed with the urge to take drugs. Lots of them. In fact, on one occasion when I played it out in public, a young woman came over to the decks and, with a somewhat horrified expression on her face, said; "Can you please take off this fucking awful drug music?" The sort of ringing endorsement that's worth aspiring to.

As far as I'm concerned, this is a proper rock'n'roll record, and precisely the kind of thing modern rock bands should be using as a jump-off point. Those who refuse, or can't hack it, or who'd simply rather carry on pretending they're Joy Division, should have their instruments forcibly taken away from them and they should be made to work in some other field of endeavour, preferably one where being suffocatingly average is the minimum requirement, and is less likely to produce a blight on the cultural landscape.

The Human Beinz: Nobody But Me (Pilooski Edit) (Dark and Lovely Vol.3, 2006)

Friday, 24 April 2009

MP3 of the Week - Olivia Byington: "Lobo do Mar"

It's back! BACK!! BAAA*sniiiiiippp*

Despite my good intentions, this has turned out to be as regular a feature as a Jamie Carragher hat-trick, but I intend to rectify this over the next few weeks. So let's bring it back with something which is both absurdly obscure and a bit of a cracker, eh?

I've written about Brazilian music and (relatively speaking) my recently-developed enthusiasm for it on here before. Incidentally, I checked my Divshare account the other day, and discovered that those DJ Nuts links have had tons of downloads, so either someone's sharing them elsewhere (without even the courtesy of a comment, I might add), or this blog gets more traffic than I thought. Anyway, I digress. When you're as long in the tooth as I am, it's easy to get a bit jaded and start thinking you've heard all the good swag you're ever going to hear. Not true. I found this tune on the excellent Donna Slut mp3 blog, and found the album it's from on Loronix (check the blogroll). It features a lot of the things I like about Brazilian music - slightly melancholy, hippyish vibe, lots of interesting musical flourishes, and in the case of this tune, an overall feel not far removed from that of some lost prog-rock gem from somewhere in Northern Europe. The flute's very Tull, and it reminds me a little bit of female-fronted prog outfits like Earth and Fire or Atlantis. I know not much more than the sum total of fuck-all about Olivia Byington, other than that she used to sing with Brazilian proggers A Barca do Sol, and went on to have a long and distinguished solo career in her home country, where she still performs today. I wouldn't expect anyone to take much interest in the joy I find in discovering music that was being made half a world away, back when I thought Generation X were a big deal, but I can assure you that joy is substantial. Furthermore, I can offer no great insight into the cultural context of this song, and of course I don't understand a bloody word she's singing, but it sounds great on a day like today, when the sun's high in the sky and things (or some of them) seem exactly the way they ought to be. Enjoy.

Olivia Byington: Lobo do Mar ('Corra o Risco', 1978)

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Never Forget.

I was born in Liverpool, and I'm a Liverpool fan. Although Fonthill Road, Kirkdale, where we lived when I was a nipper, is more or less equidistant from Anfield and Goodison Park, ours was nonetheless a Red family. Growing up, my main passion was for music, so I was pretty much the armchair supporter of the family compared to my younger brothers, both of whom went to the match on a more regular basis. Despite that, I was still enough of a fan to cry like a baby when Charlie George scored Arsenal's second goal in the 1971 FA Cup Final, denying a great Shankly team their first chance of domestic silverware since 1965.

I remember exactly where I was on the afternoon of April 15th, 1989. I was sat in the Queens in Winsford, having a bevvy with a few mates when, not long after kick-off time, a Man United fan we knew wandered into the lounge from the bar next door. He looked over at us, shaking his head and muttering, "Fuckin' scousers..."

"What are you on about?", one of us asked.

"It's all gone off at Hillsborough. Your lot are on the pitch, players are back in the dressing room. Fuckin' typical. Don't know how to behave yourselves, you lot, do yer? It's on the telly next door - go and have a look."

My heart sank. At first, I thought we were in for another repeat performance of Heysel, where a dilapidated stadium, non-existent crowd control and several hundred Liverpool fans spoiling for a fight resulted in the death of thirty-nine people, mainly Juventus fans. We took our pints into the bar, where the BBC had temporarily abandoned their scheduled Saturday afternoon programme to go live to Hillsborough. By this time, it had become apparent that this wasn't another incident of two rival firms going up against one another, but something much more awful. The pictures showed scenes of absolute chaos. Someone in the bar called out as he spotted a lad we all knew helping a few others carry someone (who was clearly in a bad way) away from the Leppings Lane end towards the centre of the pitch. People were wandering round near the goal, dazed and in obvious distress. Others were using advertising hoardings as makeshift stretchers. The commentary spoke of unconfirmed reports that people had actually died. The mood in the pub changed, and it stayed changed. Winsford was a Cheshire overspill town, full of Scouse families who'd moved there during the 60s, and the local LFCSC branch used to take a coach from the Queens to all the home games. Nobody was quite sure how many of the regulars had made their way over to Sheffield that day.

Although I knew his face from around town, I never knew Vinny Fitzsimmons personally. My youngest brother Billy did, though. Vinny played in goal for his Sunday league team, and Billy used to describe him as "one of the best reflex keepers I've ever seen". Vinny went to Hillsborough that afternoon with his young son. Although his lad came home, Vinny never did. I'll never forget picking up the phone the following afternoon, and hearing my brother in tears, as he told me that he'd just had it confirmed that Vinny was amongst those who'd died. Personally, I find "me too" attempts at muscling in on the grief of others to be pretty tasteless on the whole, but when you see someone you love in pain, how can you help but be affected by it? I began to think, not only about the (at that point) ninety-four others who'd died along with my brother's dear friend, but also about all the other people whose lives would never be the same again. A few months later, I was at a family party back in Liverpool, and got talking to a cousin I hadn't seen for a few years. The subject turned to Hillsborough, and she told me that a friend of hers, Gary Church, was amongst those who never came home from Hillsborough. Years after that, when I was down in London, I met an Evertonian who, despite his allegiances, is the model of a sound lad, and someone who's since become a firm friend. I remember him telling me of how he went to three funerals in the same week, for three friends who left their homes on the morning of April 15th 1989, expecting to enjoy a game of football and be back home talking about it in the pub that evening.

In the twenty years since Hillsborough, a widely-held view of Scousers has emerged. Many frequently refer to Liverpool as "self-pity city", or call us whingers, or sneer at what they see as a "victim mentality". I can't be bothered dignifying those views, particularly when they come from other football fans; after all, there but for the grace of God. But something I've seen and heard a lot over the last few days (and indeed the last couple of decades) is people musing upon why the anniversary of the Heysel disaster never seems to be marked with the same reverence. Now, this is just my personal opinion, but I imagine it to be because, collectively, Liverpool fans are ashamed of their involvement in that tragic episode. And rightly or wrongly, people tend not to dwell upon things they're ashamed of. Sad, but there it is. Personally, I think that waiting fifteen years before an official commemoration of the tragedy is something to be ashamed of as well, and, although the significant public display of contrition at 2005's Champions League game between Liverpool and Juve at Anfield was both appropriate and profoundly moving, I'm not going to pretend that I can't understand the feelings of those bianconeri who thought such a gesture was too long coming. But regardless of all that, there are other reasons why Hillsborough resonates in a way that perhaps Heysel doesn't. It's because, above all else, Hillsborough represented a massive dereliction of duty on the part of the South Yorkshire Police, an institution which supposedly exists to protect people as well as to uphold law and order. Yet there are scores of reports from the scene which claim that, once it became apparent there was something seriously wrong in the Leppings Lane end, the police did nothing to help, and in some cases even prevented people from escaping the crush or helping the injured, dead and dying. This was further compounded by an attempt to cover up the culpablity of the police, and, with the aid of certain sections of the media, shift all blame for the disaster onto the fans. After all, we all saw what they did at Heysel, didn't we..?

Kelvin Mackenzie is very high up on a very short list of people whom I truly despise. As editor of The Slum at the time of Hillsborough, he was directly responsible for an unforgivable smear on both the Liverpool fans who were at the game, as well as the victims and their families. Suffice to say that the content of this smear, which was widely repeated, were subsequently revealed to have been outright lies. Across Merseyside, a widespread boycott of The Slum soon followed in the wake of their April 19th front page story, which remains to this day. Kelvin Mackenzie has since been revealed as a craven liar on numerous occasions, but for him to withdraw, as he did in 2006, the half-hearted apology he made in front of a Commons Select Committee in 1993 with the words, "I was not sorry then, and I'm not sorry now", reveals a lack of basic human decency that most of us would consider reprehensible in anyone. It beggars belief that someone like him, who would use a position of influence to mock and abuse the dead and the suffering, continues to have any credibility at all within his profession, much less that others still consider him worthy of being given a platform to espouse his view of the world on otherwise credible programmes such as the BBC's Question Time. My contempt for him knows no bounds, and I'm certain I'm not alone. Fuck him.

But enough of that. Today is about the 96 people who died just because they wanted to watch a game of football. It's about their families and their friends. But it's also about those who went to the game that day, but who came home different people, whose lives were irreparably damaged, who couldn't come to terms with why they survived when others weren't so fortunate, and who carried the guilt with them for years afterwards. It's about those people who did the right thing and tried to help in whatever way they could, however small. It's about those rival fans who set aside their allegiances to offer sympathy, tributes and support, knowing that it could so easily have been, say, 96 Celtic, Forest, Everton or Arsenal fans who lost their lives that spring afternoon. It's about those who strive to overturn the shameful cover-up, who struggle to reopen the inquiry, who continue to ask the many questions that still remain unanswered about Hillsborough. It's about those who seek the real truth about what happened on April 15th 1989. Remember them all; not just today, but every day.

Justice For The 96. YNWA.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Beautiful Scarlett

As I imagine to be the case with any number of heterosexual males, I find Scarlett Johansson rather easy on the eye, and I have no problem admitting this. She may not be as consistently impressive an actress as Cate Blanchett, or blessed with Tilda Swinton's remarkable ability to make you forget sometimes that you're watching a shit film (check her Archangel Gabriel in the otherwise awful Constantine if you don't agree). But she was great in Ghost World, The Man Who Wasn't There and Lost In Translation, and did a likeable screwball turn in The Nanny Diaries, a film which, although entertaining enough, wasn't quite as clever as it thought it was. All that said, she seems to have appeared in a few too many movies lately where her performances have been kind of flat. The Island is a case in point. I don't want to be too hard on her for that one - after all, it wasn't so much just another crappy, dystopian, sci-fi/action thriller as it was just another crappy Michael Bay movie. All the same, there were moments in that particular flick when, seemingly called upon to convey something like panic, confusion or some kind of realisation that the world her character inhabited was something altogether more terrifying, her expression was more like, "Now, did I remember to turn off the bathroom light? I'm sure I did..." No matter. Like I say, 'crappy Michael Bay movie'.

No, the real subject of this post is 'Scarlett Johansson - chantoozie'. About a year ago, she released an album of Tom Waits covers called Anywhere I Lay My Head, produced by Dave Sitek (token white dude in the best black rock band in the world). I'm not sure how it sold - Wikipedia claims it's done less than 25k worldwide (which is pretty fucking rotten), but it's Wikipedia, so whatever. I do know that the level of critical opprobrium heaped upon it was wildly out of proportion to what is by no means a bad album ('butchery' and 'trainwreck' were amongst the choicest descriptions). It isn't anything earth-shattering, but, as a Tom Waits fan, I liked it, and was surprised at just how much better it was than I expected. I certainly couldn't imagine people queuing up to take a Forrest Gump all over it with quite the same enthusiasm, had it been by some Pitchfuck-endorsed Hope Sandoval wannabe rather than a Hollywood actress. Sadly, its reception, broadly speaking, does tend to typify the "how dare she..?" attitude, not only of people who considered the record to be yet another vanity project by a piece of Hollywood eye-candy with ideas above her station, but also of those rock snobs and music geeks who seem unable to comprehend that a "gurl" might be familiar enough with the work of Tom Waits to do an album's worth of his songs. I mean, how could that be possible..?

And that's another interesting thing about the record. You might expect there to be a few of The Hits on there, mightn't you? I did. Yet there's no 'Innocent When You Dream', no 'Kentucky Avenue', no 'Jockey Full of Bourbon', and certainly no 'Downtown Train'. The tracklisting looks like the kind of thing a serious Waits fan would come up with, albeit one perhaps a little less familiar with his 70s output. So what does it sound like? Well, it sounds like This Mortal Coil to me, which is no bad thing at all (Ivo Watts-Russell had some involvement, I understand), and there are moments when Sitek's production sounds to me as if he might have had in mind a more modern take on the kind of kitchen-sink-and-all sonic overload that Phil Spector almost drowned Leonard Cohen in on Death Of A Ladies Man, with Nyquil and absinthe taking the place of Quaaludes and pharmaceutical chang. Scarlett's voice isn't the most astonishing thing you'll ever hear, and sometimes it gets a little swamped by the densely-textured arrangements, but I get the impression she prefers being just another component of the whole thing, as opposed to her acting work, when she's usually further up front. Even though it's her name on the cover, the enterprise itself isn't dependent on her being a virtuoso singer in order for it to work. Entertainment Weekly declared it 'the worst album of 2008'; an editorial decision I suspect was arrived at before they'd even cracked the cellophane on the CD, and one which confirms, for me any road, that it's a periodical far better suited to analysis of things like the finer details of Lindsay Lohan's love-life, rather than of music.

It isn't that Scarlett's a bad singer either, because she isn't. Her recording of Gershwin's 'Summertime', from a 2006 compilation 'Unexpected Dreams: Songs From The Stars' is proof she's more than capable of carrying a tune, even if the enduring impression is of someone who was unlikely ever to have much of a career in musical theatre. In fact, I put her original take on a couple of summer-themed mixtapes I did for friends last year as a hidden track. When they found out who it was, a couple of them were pleasantly surprised. Along with 'No One Knows I'm Gone' from Anywhere I Lay My Head, I've posted it below, so you can hear for yourself. As a little extra, I've also posted one of my summer mixtape secret weapons; a remix of 'Summertime' I did in an afternoon last year. It isn't something I've circulated all that widely, but if you happen to like it, then you're more than welcome to share it wherever.

Scarlett Johansson: No One Knows I'm Gone - Anywhere I Lay My Head (2008)

Scarlett Johansson: Summertime - 'Unexpected Dreams: Songs From The Stars' (2006)

Scarlett Johansson: Summertime (Mighty Love Remix) - unreleased

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Groovin' With Jesus

Being something of a lapsed Catholic, the thing I most associate with Easter these days is the shops actually being shut of a Sunday. Since this has left me with a little more time on my hands than I anticipated, I've thrown together another mix for download. I originally intended for it to follow a vaguely seasonal theme, but I soon got bored with that, so it's all pretty random stuff. I wasn't going to make a habit of doing these, but a very old friend of mine has recently started a regular podcast thingum (to which I suggest you subscribe), so I thought this would be an excuse to follow his splendid example. Sort of.

Dig in, and Happy Easter.

Intro - Mighty Love: Spam Piccolo
Humble Pie: Groovin' With Jesus
Redbone: Judgement Day
Queens of the Stone Age: I'm Designer (Adrian Sherwood & Primal Scream Remix)
Bob Dylan: Most Likely You'll Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine
Lee Perry: Cow Thief Skank
Roxy Music: The Bogus Man
George Harrison: Beware of Darkness
The Beach Boys: The Trader
David Ruffin: Heaven Help Us All
Elvis Presley: Mystery Train
The Steve Miller Band: Superbyrd
The Adverts: My Place
Ila Van: Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man
Joe Cuba: Bang Bang
Gene Page: All Our Dreams Are Coming True
Gabor Szabo: Love Theme From 'Spartacus'

'Groovin' With Jesus' (Easter '09)

PS: If you're reading this on Farceberk, click on 'View Original Post' - you should be able to work out the rest for yourself.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Reflections of a Haçienda O.G.

I was scanning some old photographs the other day, and came across my long-lost membership card for the Haçienda (reproduced above for your amusement). This one is the second year membership, from 1983 to 1984. I think they finally stopped issuing membership cards in 1985. The original 82/83 membership, which I also had, was a credit card job in a yellow, black and silver-grey colourway, possibly with some pale blue in there as well - I can't exactly remember. Anyway, although I hung on to it long after it had expired, it eventually broke in half, and went permanently missing years ago. Since it wasn't a photo ID card, it lacks the 80s quiff-action comedy potential of the one above in any event. Just as well, as I suspect my barnet would have looked much worse otherwise. Around then I used to have a combination of a grown-out wedge/flick and what notorious Liverpool FC fanzine The End once famously described as the 'ten-bob haircut'. In my case, this meant a standard-issue short-back-and-sides, with the top and fringe remaining untouched. Pictorial evidence of this still exists, but if you think I'm posting it here...

Needless to say, all this has led to my reminiscing about the many nights I spent at the Haçienda in the pre-Madchester years. The received wisdom seems to be that, prior to the arrival in Manchester of ecstasy and the corresponding rise of acid house, it used to be perpetually empty, but that's not entirely true; far from it, in fact. Certainly, it was often possible to tip up at the Haç at peak time on a Saturday night and walk straight in, to find just a handful of people dotted around the place. Given how vast and cavernous it was, this had the effect of making it all look a bit miserable. Arriving to find it so sparsely attended would usually be followed by a swift decision to hit the bricks, heading a little way back up Whitworth Street to the Venue (later rechristened the State, and once the location of the legendary Northern Soul club The Twisted Wheel) or maybe the Man Alive further out towards Rusholme. Nevertheless, when the Haçienda was rammed and rockin', there was nowhere else I'd have rather been.

Inspired by New York clubs like Danceteria (whose DJ Mark Kamins was an early resident), Area and the Limelight, the Haçienda was generating controversy even before it opened its doors. Initially, it adopted a strict 'members and guests only' policy, which wasn't all that unusual. But what really boiled the piss of a lot of people at the time was the cost of membership. Unlike other Manchester clubs, such as the labyrinthine Pips ('Fennel St, behind the Cathedral') where annual membership was something like £1.50, the Haçienda charged £5.15 (rising to £5.51 the following year). Now bear in mind this was 1982, when the riots in Brixton, St. Pauls, Toxteth and Moss Side were still fresh in the memory. At the very point when Thatcherism was beginning to bite, the idea that people should have to pay such an extortionate amount, simply to be able to gain admission to a nightclub, was considered outrageous. Leading the charge was the vinegary, irreverent and often hilarious Manchester zine City Fun, which never shrank from any opportunity to take a pop at Factory, accusing its capo Tony Wilson of being the model of a hippy capitalist (amongst many other things). City Fun's position was widely echoed elsewhere, in places like the then still massively-influential NME, where a bit of an editorial schism had begun to develop. The first stirrings of Club Culture, much of which was taking place in the South, were already being documented in magazines like i-D, The Face, Blitz and the short-lived New Sounds New Styles. To place, as these mags did, the emphasis on nightclubs over live bands, cutting-edge street style over post-punk austerity, and electronic music over guitar/bass/drums, was considered a craven betrayal of the punk ethos by some, and the 'members only' approach was seen as a return to a kind of Studio 54-style elitism at odds with punk's inclusiveness. Others believed (erroneously, in my opinion) that the NME was trying to buy into this, even though they often mercilessly took the piss out of scenesters like Steve Strange, Robert Elms and Chris Sullivan. But at the other end of the country, the response to the launch of the Haçienda was one of the first indications that a cultural, as well as socio-political, North-South divide was beginning to emerge.

At this time, I lived in Winsford, Cheshire, which had grown from its origins as a salt-mining town to become home for an large overspill of displaced Scousers and Mancs whose families had moved there during the 1960s, when their employers had received generous tax breaks from Harold Wilson's government to move their operations into the cowshit-scented Cheshire countryside. In comparison with its hayseed neighbours, many of which were like Deliverance with buses instead of canoes, Winsford was actually a pretty clued-up place, and quite a few of us were reading about what was going on in London and trying to do something similar ourselves, throwing impromptu parties at local youth centres and social clubs. We had a lot of fun, as it goes. Still, now and again, some of us would regularly traipse down to London, usually to Colin Faver's monthly Final Solution nights at Heaven. Being young and largely liberal-minded, but nevertheless straight, we weren't the least bit intimidated by gay clubs (the gloriously debauched Jody's on Liverpool's Stanley Street was another favourite hangout around then), but the big attraction of the Monday nights at Heaven was the music you'd hear there; early rap, electro-funk, Canadian disco, loads of Patrick Cowley and Bobby O records, and the kind of sleek, dubbed-out proto-garage that labels like Prelude and West End were dealing in. You weren't hearing too much of this in Northern clubs at the time, certainly not in many straight clubs. But once the Haçienda opened, that was it for Heaven, and for London generally - there was now an infinitely better option, virtually on our own doorsteps.

I can't recall exactly when I went for the first time, although it might have been to see Simple Minds, when I remember it being rammed. It wasn't long after it first opened, either way. And famous as it later became for its historic influence on the club scene, I saw some great gigs there as well. It was at the Haçienda that I first saw the Smiths, who were supported by James (who'd just released their first single on Factory), on a night which wasn't as well-attended as history might lead you to believe. The night Troublefunk played there was one of the ten best gigs I've ever been to; an absolute riotous sweatbox of an evening. Shortly after the release of their second album, I saw Run DMC perform to an audience of about 200, most of whom were nascent goths, there in anticipation of a night doing the 'shake the funky moisture off your hands' dance to stuff like Theatre of Hate's 'Liberator'. Run, D and Jay wandered around the club after their set, all in matching skimmers and burgundy Def Jam bomber jackets. I remember asking D if their 'Hard Times' was a cover of the Kurtis Blow song, and he seemed shocked that I even knew of the original. I saw Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five demolish the place just a couple of weeks after seeing them at the Venue in Victoria (which is now Pacha, I think), and I caught Whodini there a couple of times as well. On one occasion, UTFO were their opening act, and they had a couple of dancers with them, one of whom I later learnt was future rap mogul Jermaine Dupri. In fact, the first time I saw Whodini, Run DMC were supposed to be the support, but they pulled at the last minute. That particular evening was co-promoted by the great Greg Wilson, an occasional Haçienda resident DJ and something of a pioneer on the scene. At one point in the show, he was invited on stage by Whodini's DJ Grandmaster Dee to demonstrate his skills on the decks. Much to the amusement of Dee, Jalil and Ecstacy, it quickly became apparent that they weren't quite as advanced as they are now. British DJs didn't really understand what cutting and scratching were back then, and although he took it in good humour, Greg did look all at sea.

Some more random memories, then. Falling asleep during a performance by Roman Holliday; being legged round the club when one of the bouncers clocked me recording Orange Juice's set on my then incredibly hi-tech, if somewhat difficult to conceal, Panasonic Walkman recorder; spending the whole of the Gun Club's set gazing longingly up at Patricia Morrison when she was the apex of Goth glamour, which is all the more remarkable if you recall what a compelling live performer Jeffrey Lee Pierce could be; walking out on a dog-awful performance by what had been billed as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, but which was actually only half the original line-up, with a handful of random makeweights and someone they tried to pass off as Flash without realising there were smart-alecs like me in the audience, who knew that Flash's trademark was three turntables, rather than the imposter's two. Another great moment was the evening that a then barely-known Frankie Goes To Hollywood did a PA, which basically involved them miming to 'Relax', which had only just been released. The thing I remember most about it was the ramp which had been set up to the right of the stage, the purpose of which became apparent when a huge motorbike with Holly Johnson on the back of it came roaring onto the dancefloor and up the ramp onto the stage. Now that's how you make an entrance.

Unfortunately, I missed the famous 'Live from the Haçienda' edition of The Tube, which featured Madonna's first-ever UK television appearance. This was because, rather than make tickets available to club regulars first as promised, they instead dished them out to random scallies on Market Street and Piccadilly, or in the Arndale Centre, so by the time my girlfriend got down to the club to grab a couple for us, they'd all gone. A week or so later, I got talking to PC of legendary Hulme jazz-dance troupe the Jazz Defectors. The JDs were Saturday night regulars back when the Haçienda clientele was about 75% black, and were the best dancers in Manchester. Their ballet-influenced, free-form style was miles ahead of anything their London equivalents were doing, and I admired them immensely. I asked him why they hadn't been on the show, as advertised. He told me they got bumped by the producers at Madonna's request, although she'd offered to let them dance behind her as part of her performance. They told her to fuck off.

Everyone knows about the acid-house era DJs, but many of the earlier original DJs were great, too. Hewan Clarke, particularly, was a lovely guy, a big, friendly bear of a man, never too busy to tell you what that last amazing record he played was, and most of the stuff he played was amazing. John Tracy, who was from across the Pennines in Sheffield, used to do the Saturday nights after Hewan moved on, and he was every bit the antithesis of the 'moody DJ' stereotype as Hewan was. One particular evening, he played five tracks in one night from Luther Vandross' classic 'Busy Body' album, which had been in the country less than a week. I bombed up to the DJ booth and asked him why he was playing so much Luther, and he replied, "It's just a fucking brilliant album, mate. Best thing I've heard in years - I wish I could play the whole thing!" Even then, people would still come to the Haçienda expecting to hear non-stop New Order and Joy Division, and would be put out to find the DJs playing cutting-edge hip-hop, slick modern soul and just about anything else with a groove. Original vocalist with A Certain Ratio Simon Topping had left the band to live in Brooklyn and study percussion, but when he returned to Manchester, he brought a shitpile of latin jazz, salsa, boogaloo and Brazilian records back with him. For a period on Saturday nights, he'd do these little half-hour sets where he'd play all this stuff - 'the Latin Break' was how they billed it - and his spots soon became the cue for the amateurs to step back and let the serious dancers do their thing. It was during one of these sessions that I first heard Carmen McRae's cover of Stevie's 'Don't You Worry Bout A Thing', which rapidly became a Haçienda classic and was later covered by ACR on the b-side of their 'I Need Someone Tonite' 12".

However, my favourite DJ memory was when I actually got to play there myself in 1990. I'd been asked by a friend to join a tour by Jimmy Somerville in support of the AIDS awareness organisation ACT UP. They were trying to keep costs down, so in lieu of a support act, I was asked if I'd bring along a couple of cases of records in return for food and lodgings. As soon as I was told the first gig of the tour was at the Haçienda, I was in. I have countless great memories of that tour, but none have stuck with me in quite the same way as when I found myself gazing down from the famous DJ booth at the very same dancefloor I'd spent so many nights on. It was a bit like what I imagine playing in the FA Cup Final must be like. It was made all the more sweet by the numerous Haçienda staffers who came up to me later and told me I'd played some great stuff. Coming from people who were used to hearing Graeme Park, Mike Pickering, Jon da Silva and Laurent Garnier play week-in, week-out, it was some compliment. I wish I'd taped it.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Lazyitis shall not prevail.

These are hardly the kind of times in which one can afford the luxury of being unproductive, and it's an accepted truth that, in order to be a writer, one needs to write. I mean, no shit, Sherlock? That said, part of the reason there aren't new entries on here every other day is because, for whatever reason, I hold on to this notion that, if you don't have anything to say, then you should probably keep it buttoned. I've resisted the urge to turn this blog into one long brainfart, as blogs can sometimes be, but it occurs to me that updating it as infrequently as I do is a bit like only doing the hoovering once a month, because, well, who else is going to notice? Not really the right attitude, is it? So, here's something that's been rolling around my head over the last week or so.

How did Channel 4 manage to fuck up Red Riding?

After reading David Peace's excellent The Damned Utd a couple of years back, I had to investigate his earlier novels, if only to discover whether or not his tale of Brian Clough's ill-starred 44-day reign at Elland Road was just an inspired one-off. It wasn't. The Red Riding Quartet, a series of densely-plotted, nerve-shredding nightmares set in South Yorkshire between 1974 and 1983, may be the best and most original examples of British crime fiction I've ever come across. Not that I'm especially widely-read in that area these days; I no longer eat up quite so much of the stuff since Mark Timlin stopped writing (if indeed he has stopped - anyone know?), but I feel fairly certain there can't be too much out there that's the equal of Peace's writing in terms of its relentless, horrifying intensity. It's a lazy comparison to make, but the Red Riding books do have a lot in common with James Ellroy's LA Quartet, certainly in terms of subject matter. Corrupt police forces, appalling miscarriages of justice, venal, self-serving public figures, unimaginable levels of violence and sexual depravity, hardly anything resembling a sympathetic character, and no happy endings. Much like Ellroy's books, they take some getting to grips with at first; the style and structure is a little unusual, but once you're used to the rhythm of the writing, you're not getting off until the last stop. By the time I'd finished Nineteen Eighty Three, I found myself wondering what incredible television the stories might make in the hands of someone with sufficient ambition and reach to take a proper run at it. Enter Channel 4...

One of the most widespread criticisms of Season 5 of The Wire was that it all seemed a little too rushed. Even a hopeless Wire junkie like myself will admit to having a bit of sympathy for this point of view; the show's characteristic measured pacing seemed to have been sacrificed in service of a need to pack in as much as possible, and new characters like Gutierrez, Haynes and Templeton were one-dimensional and underwritten in comparison with, say, the Sobotkas in Season 2. Since HBO would only give David Simon and Ed Burns enough money for ten episodes, rather than the twelve or thirteen of the earlier seasons, the relative dip in form of the final season is perhaps more understandable. I was reminded of all this when I watched Channel 4's adaptation of the Red Riding Quartet a few weeks back. Now, I have never worked in television at all, so I've neither experience nor understanding of whatever issues are involved in the production and financing of an ambitious, non-mainstream TV drama like Red Riding. But I do tend to think that, if you're going to tackle something on that kind of scale, you should at least set out with the intention of doing justice to the source material. I'm sure that the producers had every intention of doing just that, but, presumably at some point between the idea and the execution, something seemed to have gone missing. I'd imagine that adapting something as heavy on multiple narrators and complex internal dialogue as these particular stories wouldn't be an easy job in any case. But even taking into account the sort of scaling-down of plot that's unavoidable if you're to make the whole thing a decent fit for TV, there were far too many short cuts taken for Red Riding to come off, much less make enough dramatic sense for an audience that mightn't be familiar with the books. Often, the plot didn't seem compressed as much as pounded flat. To be fair, the cast was excellent on the whole; certainly, Paddy Considine, Warren Clarke, Sean Bean, Saskia Reeves, David Morrissey and Peter Mullan all did as good a job as they could with what was in front of them, which wasn't bad by any stretch; just much, much less that I'd hoped it'd be. Moreover, more than one person of my acquaintance has observed that it all appeared a little too concerned with snagging a few BAFTAs than with snagging an audience. Personally, I began to have misgivings after I read that one of the books had been binned off completely, meaning the story arc had taken a 25% knock before anyone had seen a single frame. But still, I wasn't not going to watch it.

Given the sanctimonious relish with which those hateful puritans at The Daily Mail regularly lay into anything they perceive as representing an erosion of decent, wholesome Middle England values, I can well believe that the Channel 4 brass might have been a little uneasy about committing to a full-bore depiction of the Red Riding Quartet's manifold horrors, post-watershed or not. After all, they've done a bang-up job of fashioning a rod for their own backs on that front over the last few years. Still, I wish to God someone over there had taken a metaphorical glance in the direction of Derry Street (and Wapping, for that matter) and said, "You know what, you lot can go and fuck yourselves", because I can't help thinking Red Riding might have been infinitely better if someone had. Of course, not everyone is going to have the stomach for the levels of hideousness at the awful heart of David Peace's South Yorkshire, and that's fair enough - there's no shortage of brutal scenes in all three films anyway - but you have to wonder what point there is in half-measures when you're trying to tell a story that takes in police and local government corruption on a massive scale, pornography, child abduction and murder, paedophile rings, the failure of the justice system and the Yorkshire Ripper's reign of terror. You're never going to make it look like Midsomer Murders in a thousand lifetimes. That so many of these elements came across as underdeveloped, skimmed over or hastily tossed off seemed to betray a lack of nerve as much as a lack of budget, and the whole thing ended up going off at half-cock. Never did you get a tangible sense of the all-encompassing evil that Peace had so unflinchingly catalogued in his books. On the screen, you see a bunch of people who are, at best, comprehensively bent, and who are certainly involved in some pretty nasty business. In the books, you read about the same characters and (many of) the same goings-on, and you think, "These people are fucking monsters..."

Red Riding ought to have been utterly terrifying, but the sense of disappointment I felt over its failure to measure up to the books was far greater. Other than a few moments in the second film (by far the best), where the superb Paddy Considine nails his character's rising panic as he begins to see the level of corruption he's dealing with and realises he can no longer trust anybody, it never came close to hitting as hard as it should have, and ultimately it all felt like a wasted opportunity. The days of British TV drama with the depth and weight of Edge Of Darkness or Our Friends In The North, things which were capable of leaving a lasting, powerful impression on the viewer as well as telling you something about the kind of country Britain has become (and winning a sackful of awards in the process, it should be pointed out), now appear more distant than ever. You really do get what you pay for, it seems.