Sunday, 30 June 2013

Nick Cohen on comedy

I'd recommend this fine article in the new edition of Standpoint by Nick Cohen about the state of broadcast comedy.

He argues that, despite Daily Mail columnists and their ilk claiming that the BBC favours left-wing comedians, those charges are misplaced. Because, he says, the comedians who make regular appearances on The News Quiz, Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You are not really very left-wing at all: 'The reverse side of the coin that sees them damn Mail readers as provincial bigots is the strong dislike of the urban poor ... Today's political comedy is the laughter of the privileged scoffing at those beneath them.'

I think he has a very fair point, and it's related to the increasingly middle-class nature of popular culture.

I should also note that Cohen makes reference to my forthcoming book, A Classless Society. He's one of the few people who's read it, and I'm enormously pleased - and relieved - that he seems to like it.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Neglected Glam Albums 1 - Another Pretty Face

Having spent some time in the last year living in the world of glam rock, one of the great pleasures has been revisiting old albums and - even better - finding work that I didn't previously know from the period. So here's the first item in what's intended to turn into a series...

When I was going through some old music papers a few years back, I came across a couple of one-sentence mentions in 1974 editions of the Melody Maker to a Boston band called Another Pretty Face. The reports simply mentioned that they covered songs by T. Rex and Roxy Music and noted that 'The lead singer imitates David Bowie depresingly well.' As far as I'm aware, this was their sole coverage in the British music press.

And then I found this album. As a neglected work of glam genius, it's in a class of its own. Recorded in 1973, it wasn't even released until 2004. Which might make you worry that it's going to be a ragged collection of demos and lo-fi live recordings. It's nothing of the sort - it's a fully fledged, lavishly produced, perfectly sequenced nine-track masterpiece.

To start with, those Bowie comparisons are perhaps inevitable. Particularly if you're going to open with a seven-minute epic titled 'Planet Earth' that uses science fiction imagery to explore sexuality. But the singer and main writer Terry Roth (known throughout as T. Roth, maybe in tribute to Bolan's band) is no copyist. Nor does he sit on the fence. One of the stand-out songs is 'Little Boys', which spells out its agenda in unmistakeable fashion:

People always say I only do this for the money
or I do it for the mass adoration.
Then there are the ones who assume that I'm crazy
or I'm doing it for gay liberation.
No, not me, I don't want these joys -
I only do it for the little boys.

This is accompanied, it should be said, by a wonderfully trashy bit of rock with early-1960s backing vocals of the 'bop-sho-wop' variety, in a way that the New York Dolls would recognize, had they not been so addicted to garage guitars and had they enjoyed the services of a more sympathetic producer. (The man responsible here is Ed Stasium, shortly to work with the likes of the Ramones and Talking Heads.)

Elsewhere the music veers between the swaggering horn-riffing Stones-rock of 'Stuck On You' to the Cockney Rebel posing of 'Girl Crazy'. Without deviating too far from the basic blueprint of classic rock, driven by the melodic guitar of Rob Nevitte, each song retains its own identity, assisted by guest musicians, so that there's always some variation on the keyboard textures.

I'm not sure about the Roxy Music connexion mentioned in tht Melody Maker reference, but the bonus tracks here (also produced by Stasium) include a cover of T. Rex's 'Get It On' (under its American title 'Bang a Gong'), which is fun if a little too faithful. The only other cover is 'Da Doo Ron Ron' with the gender of the subject unchanged.

This is as good as American rock got in the 1970s, dominated by Roth's arrogantly confident vocal performance. Perhaps, though, he was the problem. At a time when even Bowie was seen as too gay for mainstream America, Roth was never going to achieve the stardom he deserved. So, better late than never, this is the best glam album you never heard. And in case you don't take my word for it, the sleeve notes feature tributes by David Fricke and Lenny Kaye, who ought to know - 'cute and deadly,' says the latter.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Political class

There's a good article by Steve Richards in the Independent about the way that our leading politicians have concluded that the state should intervene in other countries but stay out of domestic policy. And he rightly identifies this as part of the new consensus that unites Tony Blair and David Cameron and their followers.

Amongst those followers, he refers to a number of journalists: 'The writer Julian Glover gave up a column to work for Cameron. The former Blair adviser Philip Collins became a columnist. Daniel Finkelstein entered the world of commentary from the Conservative Party.' His point is that they all share much the same positions.

But there's another conclusion one might draw. One that would also find room to mention others who have moved between politics and journalism: the likes of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Daniel Hannan, Ed Vaizey... Or, behind the scenes, Steve Hilton (ex-Guardian) and Andy Coulson (ex-News of the World), who used to be so important to Cameron, or Tom Baldwin (ex-Times) and Bob Roberts (ex-Daily Mirror), who are key members of Ed Miliband's inner circle.

In all the media analysis of the political class, the growing covergence between Westminster and Fleet Street tends not to get mentioned as much as perhaps it should be.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Forthcoming books - part two

Out this autumn from V&A Publishing is my book Glam Rock: Dandies in the Underworld.
This has been a dream of mine for around two decades. I love the glam rock of the early-1970s. I regard it as the highest point of British popular culture, a fantastic collision of all the best bits of the previous century or more: experimental populism, proletarian pretentiousness, low budget theatricality, seasoned showmanship - it's all in there. Never has the avant-garde been so accessible.
It's long been a source of irritation to me that while the shelves of bookshops fill up with volumes about punk, glam has languished, neglected and ignored. But I was always keen that if I did finally get the chance to do a book on the subject, then it should be a beautiful object in its own right, as befitted the music. And - thanks to the good people at the V&A - I think we've achieved that.
So it's a large-format, heavily illustrated romp through the glory years of glam.
Perhaps I should add that this is glam as I define it, because there are acts covered that don't normally get included in discussions of the genre: not just David Bowie and Roxy Music but also Sailor and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. I think it all makes sense; others will disagree.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Forthcoming books - part one

This autumn will see the publication by Aurum of the third (and very definitely final) volume in my series about the building of a new political and cultural consensus in Britain. A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s covers the period of John Major's premiership and takes the story up to 2001 with the re-election of Tony Blair.

It's an interesting period, and a slightly difficult one to assess at so short a distance. There's a strong temptation to see it all in terms of today, but I've tried to resist that; there was a different atmosphere in the country at the time, and I think it does constitute a distinct era in its own right. Above all, it was a time when politics ran hard to keep up with cultural change.

To coincide with the new book, there will be paperback reprints of the first two volumes in the trilogy: Crisis? What Crisis? and Rejoice! Rejoice!

Monday, 17 June 2013

Very British Dystopias

Radio 4 had an excellent episode of Archive On 4 last night about political dystopias in post-war Britain. Admittedly, it did have some contributions by me, but apart from that it's very good and worth listening to on the BBC iPlayer.

It was made and presented by Steven Fielding from the University of Nottingham, to whom I'm very grateful for the opportunity to talk about Daleks and other things. My thanks too to the producer Jane Ashley, who did a fine job.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Pussy Riot

As I gradually emerge from six months of self-imposed isolation, desperately trying to get work finished (two new books out in the autumn), I went to see a screening of the documentary movie Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer the other evening. And very fine it is too - well worth catching on a big screen before it turns up on BBC Four.

Its greatest strength is the absence of a voice-over, instead allowing a series of participants and interested parties to speak directly to the cameras. Principally, of course, this means that the voices are heard of the three members of Pussy Riot who were prosecuted for their actions in a cathedral. And they turn out to be not only courageous and intelligent women - as one would expect - but also very funny. As indeed are the members of the Russian Orthodox church, though in their case the humour is not quite so deliberate: some of the more militant members look like slightly deranged fans of Zodiac Mindwarp, wearing skull-festooned T-shirts bearing slogans like 'Orthodoxy or Death'. (A little reminiscent of the old 17th/21st Lancers cap-badge.)

It's not perfect as a documentary - it accepts too readily the self-aggrandising of performance artists, it leaves hanging the question of class, and it makes a frankly silly comparison with the Show Trials of the late-1930s - but it's a fascinating piece that provides an intriguing sidelight into modern Russia. And it's confident enough in its argument that it leaves scope for those offended by Pussy Riot's actions to have their say.

There's an interview with the directors (from the always excellent Roast Beef Productions) on the Guardian website.