Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Rock and Roll in Portsmouth

The V&A's exhibition of Harry Hammond's fabulous photographs of early rock and roll stars continues to make its way around the country, and arrives in Portsmouth next week, where it will stay for a few months. If you're down that way, do please have a look at the City Museum - as I never tire of saying, the photos really are tremendous.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent

As the snow continues to fall, and commentators start looking through the records for the last time we had a cold spell like this, I'm reminded of January thirty-one years ago, the so-called winter of discontent in 1979, when the last Labour government began its final descent. This is an extract from my book Crisis? What Crisis?:

It was, to start with, bitterly cold, the coldest January since 1963. Weeks of frost, freezing fog, hailstorms, sleet and snow were followed in early February by a combination of a sudden thaw and heavy rain that produced widespread flooding. And then came yet more blizzards. In Scotland there were reports of beer freezing in pub cellars and of frozen waves in Oban harbour as the temperature plunged to –25ยบ Celsius, while the whole country’s transport system struggled to cope.

Ted Heath had at least been lucky with the weather in 1973–74; Jim Callaghan was not. ‘Let those who possess industrial muscle or monopoly power resolve not to abuse their great strength,’ he had pleaded in his New Year’s message. ‘Individual greed and disregard for the well-being of others can undermine and divide our society.’ His call fell on deaf ears and the New Year started instead with strikes by the drivers of oil tankers and lorries. A series of one-day stoppages by rail workers and even by short-haul British Airways pilots added to the problems.

Within days there was a fuel shortage, with just one petrol station reported open in Liverpool and with prices inflating daily from the existing 75p a gallon up to £2 and even £3 in some places. The AA warned drivers not to undertake long journeys: ‘They probably won’t be able to get back, because the situation is grim in many areas.’ Flying pickets sealed off the ports to lorries coming from abroad and fears of imminent food shortages sparked a wave of panic buying, many taking advantage of the deep-freezes that had become part of every middle-class household over the last few years. Two million workers were threatened with being laid off if the strikes continued, pigs were reported to be resorting to cannibalism as food supplies to farms ran low, supermarkets began rationing essentials such as butter and sugar, and newspapers shrank in size as supplies of newsprint dwindled.

Callaghan missed the onset of all this, being out of the country on a six-day trip to a summit meeting of Western leaders, a meeting which – to add insult to injury – was being held on the agreeably warm Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. His absence was duly noted, generally with an appropriately British reference to the weather. ‘Britain could well be on the brink of a disaster that will make Ted’s three-day week seem like a golden age,’ raged the Sun. ‘Meanwhile Jim yawns lazily on his tropic isle...’

A Prophet in His Own Land

I've had the pleasure over the last year of working on a project with Harry Goodwin, the stills photographer on Top of the Pops for the first decade of that programme's existence.

Harry's 85 years old now, and it seems as though his time is finally come round with some serious recognition of his work. This is footage of a civic reception given in his honour by the mayor of his hometown, Manchester, where he received a Lifetime Achievement Award, witnessed by an impressive guest-list that included - as you can see - Alex Ferguson and the legendary Ken Dodd:

Harry's work on Top of the Pops was extraordinary. He photographed every artist who appeared on the show between 1964 and 1973, which means that - with the exception of Elvis - he has shots of every major rock, pop and soul act during the greatest years of the music. I don't know of any other photographer whose portfolio even approaches the same breadth and scale.

In the spring, some of this work will be on show in an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, before going on tour in Britain and abroad. And to accompany the exhibition - here's that project I mentioned - there will be a book:

Time to salute the career of Harry Goodwin? Oh yes.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Rowland S. Howard

I'm saddened to hear that Rowland S. Howard, formerly guitarist with the Birthday Party, has died.

Back at the start of the 1980s, the Birthday Party were the best live act in Britain, and I particularly remember their gigs at the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead, when they were working up the material that would appear on the Junkyard album. They were extraordinary events, carrying a genuine sense of danger. You were never quite sure that any given song would ever reach its end without collapsing under its own chaotic structure or without members of the band becoming involved in physical confrontations with the audience. Since we had never seen the Stooges, the Birthday Party were as close as we were likely to find in our generation.

Despite everything that Nick Cave went on to do, he's never come close to recapturing that moment, or the raw, passionate brilliance of that band: Mick Harvey, Tracey Pew, Phill Calvert and Rowland S. Howard.

Howard is the second of the classic line-up to die, following the demise of Pew in 1986.

This video for Shivers dates back before their move from Australia to England, when they were still known as the Boys Next Door. The song was written by Howard and links rather well to the glam era that I've been immersing myself in recently: the band got a lot wilder later on, but here their roots in Bowie, Lou Reed and Roxy Music are much more overt: