Posts from July 2011
When I persuaded Tom, several years ago now I think, to give me privileges to post to FT he was curious about what I would contribute. So, it turns out, was I; most of the popular culture bases I know much about – music of course, crime fiction, film, beer – have been covered. It’s been a long time since I did any music writing, that would have been for Liverpool University’s student newspaper and when an unknown band called Queen, tipped for the big time, played the student union. It doesn’t help that I’ve exiled myself from Poptimism and those famous FT pub gatherings along with the alleged pulse of the nation down there in the big’n’sinful.
But that, it seems, may be my opportunity. So here I am, your correspondent at the end of a windy peninsula where the acme of fashion is a blue fleece with the BAE Systems logo that says the wearer has a job and they still give away free glowsticks at the Circus Circus club on what is known locally as the Gaza Strip. Sporting success is clinging on to a place in the Blue Square Premiership. Welcome to the blunt end of the nation’s culture.
Now and then I ask myself why I came home to retire. Eleven miles of unspoilt golden beaches with a magnificent mountain backdrop help although in England’s windiest and rainiest town it’s an occasional delight. There’s the ease of access to both the Lake District and the fleshpots of Manchester. And then there’s the pies.
Pies are a serious matter in Barrow. Of course this earliest of convenience foods is universal and transcends class. Well-heeled Melton Mowbray trades on succulent pot-bellied pork pies while working-class Londoners have their own tradition with mashed potato, stewed eels and that surprisingly tasty radioactive-green gloop known as liquor. While football fans munch on their Pukka Pies, Bertie Wooster and his chums prized Anatole’s steak and kidney, and at Reading’s excellent Sweeney & Todd (yes, there is a barber’s shop next door) if you are lucky you can get hare & cherry in season, although the beef and oyster is always to be recommended. Gritty Barrovians, though, don’t hold with such exotica. The true Barrow pie is strictly meat and potato, optionally served with mushy peas but more often consumed on the go. There is an annual pie competition sponsored by the Evening Mail and each pie shop has its advocates. The ubiquitous Greggs and the regional Diggles of Lancaster have a go but their flabby confections seldom get a sniff of the prizes. Thomas’s of Cavendish Street is well thought-of and fans of gravy in their pies favour Fry’s of Anchor Road, but most locals would concede that the annual competition is a sham. The king of Barrow pies comes, by popular acclaim, from a converted former council house on a 1930s estate well away from the town centre which usually stays out of the competion to give others a chance.
Green’s of Jarrow Street is a little wonder. Its pies are made of recognisable minced beef with real slices of potato, clothed in pastry that is delicate and crispy yet firm enough to hold the substantial filling. As with the pie’s cousin from across the Duddon, the Cumberland sausage, the emphasis is on subtle pepperiness rather than a proliferation of herbs and spices, and its none the worse for that. Bite into a Green’s pie and you sense that you are not just having a snack on the run, you are sampling one of the glories of English cuisine. And no, that wasn’t meant as sarcasm.
Best of all, given my cynical take on the marketing business, it breaks all the rules. You won’t see Green’s pies advertised anywhere. Unless you’re in the know you won’t know where to look for it, and when you do find your way past the railway tracks there’s nothing to distinguish it except the green boards with the shop’s name in austere 1950s lettering. And the queue of course, spilling across the road and round the corner (what would Greggs, with theit multiple town centre locations, give for such queues?) Nobody’s in a hurry and once you’ve joined the queue it takes you a good while to get to the counter. Freshness is guaranteed; you’ll probably see several batches of pies brought out and quickly disappear not just over the counter but into boxes for the local workforce to collect. Unusually for a food shop, the queue is mostly male and there’s flirting to be done with the women flitting to-and-fro between kitchen and counter, and local gossip to be caught up on.
If this sounds like a throwback to the 1950s then I suspect its no accident. Barrow is never going to be in then thick of the Zeitgeist but I always have a sense, too, that part of the town still clings to its finest hour, 1955, the year of Willie Horne and the Challenge Cup victory. I bet there was a great pie and pea supper that night.
Martin Skidmore, our friend and long-term Freaky Trigger contributor, died of cancer on Wednesday. He was 52.
There is an awful lot you could say about Martin. He was a terrific fellow – even he didn’t seem to realise how kind and smart he was. So if I dwell here on his writing and online presence it’s because that’s how I knew him first and best, not because it’s nearly the most important thing about him. But even in that, Martin was remarkable. He was a genuine polymath, interested in almost everything. If you click on his author page and look at the most-read pieces he wrote here, you’ll see him talking about comics, soul music, football, crime novels, japanese art, food art, films, porn, and Joyce Carol Oates. He was proud of his Comics: A Beginners Guide series, but everything he wrote for us was as thoughtful and useful.
Then bear in mind that the stuff he wrote here was probably a tenth of a hundredth of the stuff he wrote, full stop – on his LiveJournal he reviewed everything he read, on the Singles Jukebox he reviewed everything he heard, he ran sites dedicated to comics and Japanese arts, and every time you met him he’d talk about five other things. The last time I saw him, when he’d been ill for a while, we watched cricket together and he patiently answered a bunch of newbie questions I had. He hadn’t watched cricket for years, he said. He still knew everything about it.
These days everyone’s an online omnivore, of course. But Martin was the real thing: he had an endless, unshowy curiosity, a frank and level judgement, and the depth of experience to give that judgement weight. When he said that something – Tezuka’s Phoenix, for instance – was among the art he loved best in the world, you listened, because you knew he never said that kind of thing lightly. And though he was humble and good-humoured, he was also quietly and rightly proud of the Japanese arts project and the work he’d done for the British comics industry through Trident Comics and the FA zine.
He was absolutely right about these – I’d heard of Martin long before I’d met him, and knew he was genuinely important to the development of British comics fandom and the comics industry in the 80s: other people will tell that story, I hope. I also had a collection of second-hand FAs which were packed with argument, incident, and lively ideas: like a lot of good zines, they were a model for the kind of online communities where we eventually bumped into one another. Martin was the kind of contributor every community wants – quick to say something welcoming or smart, slow to anger, possessed of a working bullshit detector but enough of a gent to use it wisely. ILX would never have been any good without him and others like him in its early stages.
And, of course, he was excellent company in the pub, unfailingly generous with his time and hospitality, and – as the last few months of his life showed – remarkably brave. He was a lovely man and I shall miss him tremendously. There are lots more stories about Martin to tell, and hopefully we’ll have an opportunity to get together and tell them soon.
RIP Martin, and thankyou so much.
1961: Are You Sure – The Allisons (video) (lyrics) (Lena’s write-up)
1971: Hot Love – T.Rex (video) (lyrics) (Popular entry)
1981: Can You Feel It – The Jacksons (video) (lyrics)
1991: Born Free – Vic Reeves & The Roman Numerals (video) (lyrics)
2001: Dream On – Depeche Mode (video) (lyrics)
2011: E.T. – Katy Perry ft Kanye West (video) (lyrics)
Spotify playlist (all 6 tracks)
Modelled so closely on the Everly Brothers that they even affected a fictional sibling status, The Allisons followed a career path that became familiar in the 2000s: a TV talent show, a record deal, a chance to represent the UK at Eurovision, a lone hit, and a quick slide from public view. Still, at least their brief star got to shine a little more brightly than Jessica Garlick’s, or James Fox’s, or Andy Abraham’s, as – in accordance with Sixties/Seventies Eurovision custom – “Are You Sure?” finished in second place for the United Kingdom, beaten by the entry from plucky little Luxembourg.
(Eurovision Stats Overload Parenthesis, For Those Who Care: Kathy Kirby and The New Seekers were similarly trounced by France Gall and Vicky Leandros in 1965 and 1972, while Anne-Marie David elbowed Cliff Richard into third place in 1973. It almost goes without saying – but let’s say it anyway, because there’s nothing the British like more than a decades-old competitive grudge – that none of the victorious acts were actually native to Luxembourg. Poor show, what?)
Having watched The Assassination Of Richard Nixon over the weekend, I can’t help but imagine “Are You Sure?” being crooned by Sean Penn’s simpering, simmering salesman-turned-killer. For while the track might start with soft, courtly entreaties to the departed lover – “Look here, old thing, are you absolutely positive about all this?” – an increasingly unveiled sense of menace starts to seep through the well-mannered veneer. The tone becomes accusing (“for you’re the one who went and broke the vow”) and then threatening (“You’ll be sorry, wait and see, spend your life in misery”), casting a different complexion on the final iteration of “hold you tightly in my arms”. Just how tightly, you flukey fraternal fakes?
1961: Don’t Treat Me Like A Child – Helen Shapiro (video) (lyrics)
1971: Remember Me – Diana Ross (video) (lyrics)
1981: This Ole House – Shakin’ Stevens (video) (lyrics) (Popular entry)
1991: Senza Una Donna (Without A Woman) – Zucchero ft Paul Young (video) (lyrics)
2001: Liquid Dreams – O-Town (video) (lyrics)
2011: Unorthodox – Wretch 32 ft Example (video) (lyrics)
Spotify playlist (minus O-Town & Wretch 32)
I commented on the phenomenon last year, when evaluating Steve Lawrence’s “Footsteps”, but now Helen Shapiro‘s debut single gives us another chance to savour one of the kitschiest delights of early Sixties pop. I’m such a sucker for the rinky-dink backing vocals which sometimes threaten to overwhelm “Don’t Treat Me Like A Child”, and here they’re used to cunning effect, undercuttiing the 14 year old’s earnest plea to be taken seriously with an almost malevolent schoolgirl glee. (I’m picturing Helen’s singers with bunched hair and painted freckles, waggling oversized lollipops – but then I’ve always had an overactive imagination.)
As rallying cries for Disaffected Youth go, “Don’t Treat Me Like A Child” is tame fare indeed. But if the generational schism which rock and roll had opened was closing again, and if the journey from the primness of “My own point of view has got to be known” to the fury of “Why don’t you all f-f-f-fade away” had barely begun, then Disaffected Youth would have to rally round any cries it could find. You tell ’em, Helen!
38: Hobo With A Shotgun (Movie)
I have no sensitivity to gore. Blood can spurt out of wounds on film like Old Faithful and the more it spurts the less sensitive I am. Guts can fall out of bodies and it might even push a giggle out of me. The moment someone is getting sliced in two and sliding apart like a cartoon, well its like a cartoon. Cartoons never used to be gory, but since the toon within a toon of Itchy and Scratchy, and the gorefest that is Superjail even this is no longer true. There is nothing about gallons of fake blood that bothers me. Indeed the gallons help.
There is an interesting sequence in the faux (but tonally spot on) grindhouse quickie Hobo With A Shotgun that illustrates the difference perfectly. Rutger Hauer’s tramp has turned up in Fucktown, and has been driven to homicidally clean up all the evil he sees on display with his shotgun. Much splatter continues in such a strong cartooonish fashion that even the most egregious nonsense is clearly so far removed from reality that it hold little to no emotional attachment. Except one point where the female lead, the tart with a heart (its that kind of film), is held down by the armoured villains “The Plague” who start to hacksaw off her head. Nearly all the other gore in the film has been supplied by shotgun blasts and swift limb choppings. The hacksawing creates little blood, but is the most shocking action in the film, and proof that Hobo With A Shotgun created a character that I at least cared about a bit.
Another year, more whizzy ideas from the big international beer companies. Yet again returning to that old bugbear, why don’t women drink more beer? Of course you could just give up on trying to make people drink stuff they don’t want to drink, but the big brewcos would rather spend a million dollars trying to develop a beer they do like. Which is exactly what Molson Coors and Carlsberg have done as this Morning Advertiser article suggests, next to a stock picture of four women enjoying beer (so they clearly wasted money). As Kerry said looking at this stuff, she like the discussion of “targeting females” as if they were skittish creatures running around in the underbrush.
37: The Tree Of Life (cinema)
Terrance Malick’s divisive The Tree Of Life is probably my favourite Malick since Badlands. Which isn’t saying an awful lot, me and Malick have rarely clicked, but I was much more engaged with it than I was with even The New World (which I saw in an excellent double bill with Pocohontas so I knew what was going on)*. And I cannot say I particularly liked Malick’s everything but the kitchen sink history of creation / forensic family drama. But it was very interesting, a fascinating watch stylistically but, and this is where I usually part company with Malick, also narratively. Particularly if you top and tail the film, lopping of the National Geographic and the Ten People You Meet In Heaven segments, you are left with a ninety minute impressionistic view of a disfunctional fifties family.
Or at least cinema, and cinematic technique, wants us to feel it is disfunctional. The air of dread around the dinner table and Brad Pitt’s hard, driven father figure all suggest that there is more to this scenario than meets the eye. The undercurrent of tension plays well, the kids are our viewpoint characters and as there is barely a narrative, tension fills the gaps. But even when Pitt’s father explodes, the film suffers from a difficult dichotomy. Film has taught us that aggressive dads are bad, that dramatically there is no smoke without fire and dread has to come from somewhere. But at the same time Jessica Chastain’s mother is so gossamer thin, an angel made flesh in her sons eyes that any comparison with the father will make him feel wanting. The most burning question I wanted to ask others on the way out is if Brad Pitt’s father is a bad dad? Or at least is he abusive, bullying or just the way Dad’s were in the fifties? Because it strikes me that I knew the dread around the dinner table, there was real sanction in “wait til your father gets home“, and the role of the father as disciplinarian was often out of necessity and not seen as a bad one. It was the way that, up until recently, Western families were.
34: Pather Panchali / 35: Aparajito / 36: The World of Apu (DVD)
Of course I tease. Of course I am being deliberately provocative. Satyajit Ray’s trilogy is nothing like the three cack handed George Lucas toy shilling adverts, these are lovely elegaic films, of coming of age, of town and country, of sweeping understated* tragedy. Of course there is a superficial similarity with the lead character Apu losing his family, growing up with an air of mysticism and then in anger rejecting his own child until a reconciliation. Of course Apu doesn’t strictly turn to the dark side in the intermediate sections, there are no clone troopers or incomprehensible battles beyond the stars. Just Benares, Calcutta, countryside and the growing pains of a difficult child.
1961: Theme From Dixie – Duane Eddy (video)
1971: (Where Do I Begin) Love Story – Andy Williams (video) (lyrics)
1981: Night Games – Graham Bonnet (video) (lyrics)
1991: The Whole Of The Moon – The Waterboys (video) (lyrics)
2001: It Wasn’t Me – Shaggy ft Rikrok (video) (lyrics)
2011: Guilt – Nero (video) (lyrics)
Spotify playlist (all 6 tracks)
It’s a tenuous segue, but what the heck: just as the last round closed with a martial rhythm (of sorts, at least), so this round opens with one. And there the similarities end, as we switch from the fully contemporary to a song that dates from the middle of the 19th century. Not being au fait with the American minstrel tradition, my only prior exposure to “Dixie” was as a part of Elvis Presley’s funereally paced “American Trilogy”, so the chirpiness of Duane Eddy‘s version was initially startling – but despite its lyrical pining, this was traditionally a cheerfully rendered tune, and so Eddy takes fewer liberties with it than I had thought.
The track’s first half sticks fairly faithfully to Eddy’s “man with the twang” template, reminding me of the influence that he exerted on Hank Marvin’s playing style, and the combined influence of both players on the rock guitar heroes that would follow in their wake. (This stuff might sound corny now, but if you were a suburban bedroom musician with no access to the cooler stuff – your Hookers, your Wrays – then Hank and Duane on the Light Programme might well have been your beacons.) But during the second half, things start to go a bit loopy, as if the whole studio has suddenly slid into devil-may-care drunkenness: hollered yee-haas, a yakety sax, a half-mumbled lyrical fragment, a demented, almost parodic diva. It all leaves me wondering how much of this madness can be laid at the door of Eddy’s long-time collaborator, the late Lee Hazlewood. (Ah, NOW you’re interested!)