Wuz worth it…

…for those few golden seconds…

 

 

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…before Wikitedium intervened:

 

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Gender bias in comedy

On this morning’s special edition of The Today Programme, which celebrated the Women’s suffrage centenary with an all-female presented live broadcast from St Stephen’s Hall in Parliament, Sarah Montague chaired a funny and depressing discussion with the comedians Shappi Khorsandi and Sally Phillips, about what Montague suggested was a widely-held perception that men are funnier than women. During the interview, both Khorsandi and Phillips highlighted shocking statistics for the small number of TV and Radio shows that are commissioned for female comedians, in comparison to their male counterparts. Different industry, same story.

 

Female comedians are far funnier and less predictable than male comedians and I think one of the reasons for this is that men have become comfortable with and reliant upon the ‘boys club’ dynamic established by TV panel games but also born out of the exclusively male, ego-driven ‘Comedy is the new Rock’n’Roll’ era that flourished in the early ’90s​.

 

Every performer has an ego, regardless of their gender but when I go to a live comedy night where there’s a good onstage gender balance, or where more women are on the bill, the venue becomes a refreshingly ego-free environment; you don’t feel that competitive ‘boysy’ atmosphere that is generated by a male-dominated bill. I think that’s why the styles of comedy and the range of themes seem wider in female comedy; once all that other nonsense is banished from the room, there’s more breathing space for bigger ideas, broader issues and indeed, broader silliness; there’s a far more open and receptive atmosphere in the club.

 

With only half a dozen exceptions, the funniest stand-up comedians I’ve seen over the last two years have (coincidentally?) all been female. They are: Vanessa Hammick, Róisín & Chiara, Tania Edwards, Siân & Zoë, Birthday Girls, Desiree Burch, Elf Lyons, Tiff Stevenson, Sofie Hagen, Kiri Pritchard McLean, Fern Brady, Eleanor Morton and Sara Pascoe (to name but a lot).

 

(n.b. This post isn’t rounded off with a neat concluding punchline, just an instruction to go and see these comedians…for you must do so.)

The moviegoer’s fear of the O.S.T.

I greatly enjoyed the brilliant comedy short Ghosted today but for one small gripe: I felt it would have benefited from the omission of a song that appears at the end. No offence to the singer-songwriter whose song was featured, it’s just that song lyrics often break the viewer out of the story, shattering the spell somewhat (i.m.h.o). Another example of this would be the last few minutes of Andrea Arnold’s beautiful adaptation of Wuthering Heights. As I neared the end of a film that had been refreshingly soundtracked only by whistling wind and some occasional dialogue, a contemporary song suddenly kicked in and turned the film’s last moments into a music video.

To be fair to Ghosted, the music arrives close to the credits but there are other examples where music of any kind is completely unnecessary in a film. Whenever the BBC broadcast a brand new adaptation of an M.R. James ghost story, the director and production team appear to have forgotten how effective the classic James adaptations from the 1970s were as a result of having no atmospheric music driving the scenes. The moment in his stories where normality gives way to the supernatural can be powerfully conveyed with ambient sounds from a familiar and banal world being suddenly invaded by the snapping of branches, a murmuring voice and some unnerving scuttling sounds.

Please read this non-concluding sentence whilst fading in some anthemic cod-Coldplay muzak….or by creaking some floorboards.

Help Cardiacs’ Tim Smith to get well again, home and creating astounding music once more.

A fantastic crowdfunding campaign was launched on Monday to enable Tim Smith, the Cardiacs founder and Sea Nymph, to afford one year’s worth of rehabilitative therapy for dystonia, which has affected him since suffering a cardiac arrest on his way back from a My Bloody Valentine concert in 2008.

The speed with which donations have been gaining on the set target has been incredibly moving to behold, as has the volume of well-wishes being sent in Smith’s direction, many of them expressing gratitude for the profound effect that this (genuine) musical genius has had on their lives. It has also been fascinating to learn who some of these folk are. It is not for nothing that a swathe of the contributions and tributes have been from the world of comedy and entertainment: Dawn French*, Paul Putner, Adam Buxton, Phill Jupitus and Iain Lee; musicians such as The Unthanks, Jim ‘Foetus’ Thirlwell, Simon Raymonde, ex-Communard and broadcaster the Reverend Richard Coles; the artist/filmmaker duo Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. Even the writer and satirist David Quantick, one-time staffer for the Cardiacs-averse New Musical Express, has stepped into the breach for Mr Smith’s cause.

Cardiacs’ influence can be heard on many bands of the last 30 years, particulary Blur, who admitted aping Cardiacs’ sound for the brass sections on Popscene, albeit onstage at Mile End Stadium, three years after it was released. When they promoted that single in 1992, all they would say about the song was ”I think people will notice how much we’ve changed our sound”, or words to that effect.

It’s just my speculation but the first time I heard The Stone Roses’ debut album, I couldn’t help thinking that the Dante’s Inferno-evoking din at the beginning of I Wanna Be Adored sounded remarkably similar to the industrial churning sounds that usher in Icing on the World, which had come out the previous year. It’s not inconceivable that the Roses would have heard the band, given that Squire and co. had only recently folded away their Goth capes.

I’ll always associate Cardiacs’ music with the smell of dry ice; the stuff would ​engul​f​ the stage and the stalls at the beginning of each gig, heightening the sense of anticipation and excitement before the band marched on. As you’ll see in the Whole World Window performance above, these live shows were​ as magically theatrical as anything one could see in an actual theatre, if not more so. Smith’s onstage persona would flit between the highly emotional, despairing chap you see in that video, to a muttering, tantrum-throwing child; either that or a near-Dickensian playground bully, dragging his brother Jim to the front of the stage by his ear and commenting ”Bit of a fat boy?” So convincing was this persona that I was amazed to learn​​ from friends who’d met ​him that he ​was ​a gentle, affable and generous-minded soul offstage.

One of my two biggest regrets – the other one will be along shortly –  is that I missed a 1992 concert by The Sea Nymphs at the now-defunct Islington Powerhaus, to instead see Pulp for the umpteenth time that year. This was daft on a monumental scale, particularly as I’d felt so gutted when Sarah Smith and, eventually, William D. Drake departed from the band (ditto Tim Quy). Two years earlier, at the age of sixteen, I’d even written a letter to Sarah, presumptuously asking when she would rejoin. Amazingly, a reply from Smith dropped through the letterbox days later, inviting me to a one-off filmed concert that she was returning for, at a church in Salisbury. This blew my mind but less so than the next part: If I came and said hello, Mrs Smith would set aside some things to give me!

As the Saturday of the concert drew closer, my father told me he’d arranged for him and me to visit my grandparents in Edinburgh, to help my grandad dig his garden. The proposed visit fell on that very same day. I argued my case but was told that no other weekend was possible. Missing this dream-come-true, one that I was meant to attend, filled me with a deep sadness that I’ve attempted to shut to the back of my mind for the past 28 years, with varying degrees of success. This is inevitably mixed with feeling thankful that I was able to assist my grandfather with the gardening, as it turned out to be my very last opportunity to do so.

Little did I know that The Sea Nymphs would play more concerts after the Powerhaus show, at small venues near me over the next six years. Instead of stewing over this fact, I should content myself with having witnessed so many stunning performances of their songs by Mr Drake and his So-Called Friends.

1992 is also the year I made the rash, although not wholly conscious, decision to never again attend a Cardiacs show, now that the classic six piece band had been whittled down to a rockier, Metal-leaning four piece version.

I’d always deeply loved Cardiacs’ quieter moments, such as The Safety Bowl and Blind in Safety and Leafy in Love. The newly-arrived Sea Nymphs held the door-key to a vast roomful of songs of that ilk. I had no knowledge of the Mr & Mrs Smith & Mr Drake album until the mid-noughties but this fast became my favourite. It really doesn’t sound like anything that came before or after it. An unusual amount of space is created within and around each song, due to the omission of drums and percussion. Melodies trail off, as if rolling  and winding their way down a hill before reaching a natural stopping point. There’s also the refreshingly stripped down, unusual pairing of acoustic and electric instruments; for example, woodwind, piano and electric guitar on A Treat From Mr. Smith. This dynamic is prevalent on the subsequent Sea Nymphs albums; Appealing to Venus is driven along by piano, organ and an electric bass. I also love the contrasts in the three members’ vocals; Tim Smith’s voice often has a beautiful, pained urgency to it, Drake’s a sleepy baritone, while Sarah Smith sings with a voice that is simultaneously childlike and wise.

When William D. Drake was a guest on Mark Braby’s much-missed Full Circle radio programme, he gave a riveting account of how Tim Smith had auditioned him on-the-spot for Cardiacs by writing out some complicated musical notation, then asking Drake to play it on the upright piano of the pub they were in. I’ve often wondered what it sounded like.

Should this post move you to make a donation in support of the heroic Tim Smith’s recovery, please visit this link: www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/timsmith​

(*Mind you, I did hear Burn Your House Brown being used in an early French & Saunders sketch called ‘Muriel & Maddie’, which featured in their anniversary TV special at Christmas!)

 

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Jeff Buckley at Rough Trade Neal’s Yard, Saturday 19th March 1994.

I’ve often wondered if anybody captured Jeff Buckley’s Rough Trade show on audio or video. My occasional G**gle and Y**t*be searches over the years have yielded nothing.

When I caught the No.12 Routemaster into town from Camberwell Green, then descended Slam City Skates’ spiral staircase to the Tardis-like Rough Trade shop in its basement, I’d not yet heard any of Buckley’s music, acting solely on a brief but enthusiastic NME review of his set at the New York Music Seminar the previous year. The article mentioned how a frantic-looking Alan McGee had been spotted running around, trying to sign Buckley to Creation Records before his performance had even finished. Three years earlier I’d fallen in love with the music of his father, Tim Buckley, thanks to a landlady who’d left behind a pile of records she didn’t want, including his debut. I’d hopped on that bus fully aware that I didn’t have money for the return journey, so determined was I not to miss this show.

When I reached the bottom of that staircase I was greeted by an apparently comatose, stupidly handsome man standing roughly a metre away, his hands by his sides, a stratocaster hanging from his shoulders and wearing a fashionably oversized Houses of the Holy t-shirt. Taking my place amongst the modestly sized throng of punters, I realised that I was still in daftly close proximity to the performer, although this was quite normal for gigs in that shop. Buckley’s eyes remained closed and he was motionless, his head hanging slightly forward. One of Rough Trade’s familiar staffers came clunking down the metal steps, holding a polystyrene cup of coffee from Neal’s Yard Bakery. Buckley opened his eyes and took a sip, then placed the coffee on the floor. Very gently, he began playing his guitar, except he was playing so quietly that I initially thought he was just tuning up. Eventually, the circular melody he was playing was accompanied by a high, distant hum that slowly grew in volume. I now know this to be the beginning of Mojo Pin but then I had no idea what it might develop into; I certainly didn’t anticipate the extraordinary vocal range he was about to unleash on us all.

It was surreal to witness this human statue yawn himself awake with the aid of his music. In retrospect I’ve often wondered if this was all part of the performance (although he did request a second coffee very soon after the first!)

Buckley pretty much played the mini-album he was promoting, Live at Sin-é. I am, however, adamant that the second song he launched into, with its memorably clanging guitar chords, was Grace; five months later I would hear it for only the second time, when he and his band appeared on BBC2’s The Late Show. (It’s worth looking out for the singer’s reaction when Tracey McLeod mentions his father during her introduction. )

What was striking about Buckley’s performance was how funny he was in between songs; his set could have even been viewed as a stand-up comedy gig bookended by music. If he’s to be compared to his father at all, his comic sensibility should be included alongside any musical parallels; just listen to ‘Dream Letter: Tim Buckley Live in London’ and you’ll hear the funniest comedian in town introduce his next song. The tragically early deaths of both singers, and the mythologies that have grown around them since, are in danger of erasing the light and shade that was abundant at their concerts, ditto Nirvana’s frequent larking about onstage. (”I’m a standard lamp!” – Krist Novoselic.)

The Rough Trade show was punctuated by a running stream of banter between an unnamed Melody Maker journalist, his girlfriend and Jeff. Buckley and the scribe traded faux insults with one another, while the singer pretended to flirt with his partner.

Shortly before launching into his cover of The Way Young Lovers Do, Buckley gulped down more coffee and, in his sharp-toned voice, murmured ”Coffee overdose.” The journalist blurted out ”Kurt Cobain”, in gallows humour reference to the painkiller-induced coma the Nirvana singer had survived earlier that month. ”That guy?…”, retorted Buckley, ”…Lightweight!” We all laughed. ”No seriously,” he continued, ”I was so shocked, I wanted to call him and say ‘Oh Kurtis!!! I was so worried!!!” (I shall now lapse clumsily into present tense and describe how, at this moment in my recollection, Buckley has grabbed the mic by its stand and is lurching forward and wailing into it, in a camp and melodramatic send-up of himself.)

That was the only time I got to see Jeff Buckley play live. When his death was confirmed in May 1997, I kicked myself for never having seen him with his astonishing band. I should have counted myself lucky that I got to see him at all and in such an intimate setting, despite the 4½ mile walk home.