It’s alive

 

From GuitarParty.com

 

Christmas Day last year marked not only the 2017th birthday of Jesus Christ.  It was also the day that Shane MacGowan, singer, songwriter, musician, raconteur and front-man of the much-loved Anglo-Irish folk-punk band the Pogues, celebrated his 60th birthday.  Wow, I have just written six words that I never expected to write together in a sentence: namely ‘Shane MacGowan’ and ‘celebrated his 60th birthday’.

 

Indeed, back in the 1990s, the prospect of the famously and fearfully hard-living MacGowan reaching even his 40th birthday looked doubtful.  A man whose modus operandi had always been to be the Brendan Behan of the musical world, his industrial-level alcohol consumption and resultant unreliability had by this time led to him being ejected, temporarily, from the Pogues.  Also, late in the decade, he’d developed a heroin habit so severe that his pal Sinead O’Connor felt compelled to report him to the police before he killed himself with an overdose.

 

In the summer of 1995, I was in New York when I learned that MacGowan and his post-Pogues band the Popes were performing at a local venue.  So I bought a ticket.  The gig saw a mightily-inebriated MacGowan manage to sing all of two songs.  He spent another fifteen minutes sitting at the edge of the stage clutching his head while the Popes played a couple of instrumentals.  Then he disappeared.  The band did a few more instrumentals and then followed their leader’s example and exited too.  The crowd nearly rioted.  Poor Shane did not look like a man who had much of a professional future ahead of him.  Or indeed, much of a future.

 

Yet the old bugger was still on the go three years later when I saw him, with the Popes again, at the Fleadh music festival at London’s Finsbury Park.  This time he remained standing and remained singing for the entire set, even if he did have the dazed air of a man who’d just been returned to earth after being abducted and probed by aliens.  And it was touching how, when the performance was done, the crowd kept chanting, “Shane-o!  Shane-o!  Shane-o!” until, finally, an appreciative grin spread across MacGowan’s bleary features.

 

© WEA

 

He was in better form the next time I saw him, in the early noughties.  He and the rest of the Pogues’ classic line-up – James Fearnley, Jem Finer, Darryl Hunt, Andrew Ranken, Spider Stacy, Terry Woods and the late Philip Chevron, plus original bassist and sometime-vocalist Cait O’Riordan – had got together for a Christmas tour and they made an appearance at the Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where I was living at the time.  Admittedly, MacGowan’s voice was weaker than it’d been during the glory days of Pogues albums like Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (1985) and If I Should Fall from Grace with God (1988), but he seemed to raise his game whenever Cait O’Riordan sang onstage with him; and their rendition of 1988’s famous Christmas song Fairy Tale of New York, with O’Riordan taking the place of the late Kirsty McColl, was rather wonderful.

 

The whole event, shameless, nostalgic cash-in though it was, was rather wonderful in fact.  Well, with a combination of the Pogues, Christmas and a few thousand boozed-up Geordies, how could it not be wonderful?

 

In the meantime, in 2001, MacGowan and his long-time partner, the journalist Victoria Mary Clarke, had published a book called A Drink with Shane MacGowan.  A rambling mixture of memoirs, anecdotes, opinions and philosophy related by MacGowan and recorded and edited by Clarke, A Drink… is great.  It’s both fascinating and knowingly hilarious.  I particularly liked the bit in it where he theorises why Samuel Beckett was such an existentialist misery-guts.  (It was because Beckett was the only man in the whole of Ireland who liked cricket.)

 

© Pan Books

 

Anyway, the other evening, three weeks after his sixtieth, MacGowan was honoured with a belated birthday-bash at Dublin’s National Concert Hall.  During the proceedings, some of his most famous compositions were played and sung by various musical talents, luminaries and icons (and Bono).  Near the end, the birthday boy himself was wheeled onstage – he’s been largely wheelchair-bound since 2015, when an accident outside a Dublin recording studio left him with a broken pelvis – to sing Summer in Siam, from the 1990 Pogues album Hell’s Ditch, with his old mate Nick Cave.  He then brought the event to a close with a solo rendition of the venerable Scottish folk song Wild Mountain Thyme, his now-weary and gravelly but somehow more-affecting-than-ever voice probably ensuring that there wasn’t a single dry eye or lump-free throat in the building.

 

Here’s a list of my ten favourite Shane MacGowan songs – ones he’s written and / or ones he’s sung.

 

The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn (from the 1985 Pogue album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash).  Glasses of punch, whiskey, banshees, ghosts, angels, devils, rattling death-trains, midnight mass, Euston taverns, “lousy drunken bastards”, pissing yourself, getting syphilis and decking “some f**king blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids…”  If ever a song was the Pogues’ manifesto, it’s this one.

 

Sally MacLennane (from Rum, Sodomy and the Lash).  Equally rousing and elegiac, this is the perfect song for bidding adieu to an old friend: “I’m sad to say, I must be on my way, so buy me beer and whiskey cos I’m going far away…  FAR AWAY!

 

If I Should Fall from Grace with God (from the 1988 Pogues album of the same name).  This is surely the one that makes all Pogues fans ‘go wild on the dance floor’.

 

Fairy Tale of New York (from If I Should Fall from Grace with God).  Obviously.

 

Thousands are Sailing (from If I Should Fall from Grace with God).  Written by Philip Chevron, this paean to the millions of Irish people forced to migrate to North America in the 19th century receives much of its power from MacGowan’s vocals, simultaneously wistful and exultant.  It just didn’t sound the same when, minus MacGowan, the Pogues performed it in the 1990s.

 

Down All the Days (from the 1989 Pogues album Peace and Love).  A tribute to the severely-palsied Irish writer Christy Brown, who had to “Type with me toes, drink stout through me nose, and where it’s going to end, God only knows,” this also contains the memorable lines, “I’ve often had to depend upon the kindness of strangers, but I’ve never been asked and never replied if I supported Glasgow Rangers.”

 

© Mute Records

 

What a Wonderful World (a 1992 duet with Nick Cave, available on the 2005 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album B-Sides and Rarities).  MacGowan and Cave’s amusing, but still tender and respectful, version of the Louis Armstrong classic is the song I want played at my funeral.

 

God Help Me (from the 1994 Jesus and Mary Chain album Stoned and Dethroned).  Considering what MacGowan was going through at the time, this melancholic, low-key collaboration with the usually abrasive, feedback-drenched Scottish alternative-rock band the Jesus and Mary Chain is probably aptly titled.

 

That Woman’s got me Drinking (from the 1994 Shane MacGowan and the Popes album The Snake).  This features one of the best choruses ever: “That Woman’s got me drinking, look at the state I’m in, give me one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten bottles of gin!

 

Her Father Didn’t Like Me Anyway (from The Snake).  Gerry Rafferty’s rumination on a relationship that’s gone wrong is reworked by MacGowan and the Popes in their own inimitable manner.  I wonder what Rafferty thought about the subtle changes made to his lyrics at the very end of the song.  The Rafferty version simply concludes, “Her father didn’t like me anyway.”  The MacGowan one concludes, “Her father was a right c*nt anyway.

 

Motör-dead

 

© Daily Mirror

 

“The party’s through there,” said the mother of a schoolmate who’d invited me to a shindig at her house one evening in 1980.  With a grimace she added, “Just follow the noise.”

 

And what a noise it was – a relentless, clattering, crashing onslaught of guitars and drums with a sepulchral voice growling over the top of it: “If you like to gamble, I tell you I’m your man, you win some, lose some, it’s all the same to me…”  Yes, the noise was Ace of Spades, signature song of the mighty rock-and-heavy-metal band Motörhead.

 

And when my fifteen-year-old self obeyed my friend’s mum’s directions – moving awkwardly because of the one-litre bottle of Woodpecker Cider I had stuffed up and hopefully concealed inside my T-shirt – and walked along a passageway and passed through a door into the house’s living room, I entered a blitzkrieg of extreme sensations.  The sound of Motörhead, hitherto muffled by the living-room door, suddenly jumped to a truly skull-cracking volume.  And I was assailed by the heat, commotion and flying dandruff generated by two-dozen schoolmates whose heads churned in unison to the music.  Meanwhile, I observed lurking in a corner a few members of the local Ska and Mod communities, clad in their customary tight jackets, polo shirts, braces, rolled-at-the-cuff jeans, drainpipes, Doc Martens, loafers, trilbies and pork-pie hats, all with expressions on their faces reminiscent of Dracula’s when Van Helsing tore down the curtains and flooded the room with early-morning sunlight.

 

An evening’s partying ahead of me, a litre of cider, a roomful of friends, Motörhead going full-blast on the hi-fi and a bunch of Mods and Ska-kids looking miserable?  Wow, I thought.  What a great time to be alive!

 

‘Alive’, alas, is no longer an adjective that can be applied to the line-up of Motörhead that were playing on the stereo at that memorable moment in time.  I write this having just heard of the death of guitarist ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke, who along with vocalist / bassist / main-man Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilminster and drummer Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor constituted the band’s ‘classic’ line-up from 1976 to 1982.  (Lemmy and Phil Taylor died within two months of each other at the end of 2015.)  During those half-dozen years, they released a half-dozen albums, Motörhead in 1977, Overkill and Bomber in 1979, Ace of Spades in 1980, live album No Sleep ’til Hammersmith in 1981 and Iron Fist in 1982; and these were choc-a-bloc with splendid, ear-battering songs.

 

Songs like the afore-mentioned Ace of Spades, which if you ask me at least two days of the week I’ll identify as my favourite tune of all time.  And the eponymous Motörhead,  which Lemmy had actually written for his previous outfit, the ‘space-rock’ band Hawkwind, and which since then has been covered by everyone from Lawnmower Deth to Primal Scream.  And Bomber, inspired by Len Deighton’s 1970 World War II novel of the same name, which warns, “Because we shoot to kill, you know we will, it’s a bomber, it’s a bomber!”.  And Overkill, which begins with the mission statement, “Only way to feel the noise is when it’s loud and good…”  And that paean to a little-acknowledged but vital group of people in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, We are the Road Crew, which with its sledgehammering rhythm describes the tribulations faced by the average roadie: “Another town I’ve left behind, another drink completely blind, another hotel I can’t find, another backstage pass for you, another tube of superglue, another border to get through…

 

One nice thing about Motörhead during this era was that despite their uncompromising sound and hardcore image – the monstrous, fanged, tusked creature that was their emblem, the jagged Germanic lettering used in their logo, the outfits they wore onstage that made them look like crosses between spaghetti-western villains and Hells Angels – they clearly didn’t take themselves too seriously.  I first heard Ace of Spades, for example, when they featured on the famously anarchic Saturday-morning TV kids’ show Tiswas, an appearance that saw them getting drenched in buckets of water and pelted with custard pies.  In 1981, for a laugh, Lemmy recorded with the allegedly wholesome, granny-friendly Irish singing group the Nolan Sisters, of whom he later said: “We were supposed to be the smelliest, loudest motherf**kers in the building but we more than met our match.  We were in awe.  You couldn’t mess with the Nolan Sisters.”

 

© Valkyrie Records

 

However, a decision in 1982 to record a version of Tammy Wynette’s Stand by your Man (with the late Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics) proved a joke too far for Fast Eddie Clarke, who left the band in protest.  That marked the end of Motörhead’s greatest line-up, although the next three decades, when Lemmy worked with guitarists Brian ‘Robbo’ Robertson, Michael ‘Wurzel’ Burston and Phil ‘Wizzo’ Campbell and drummers Pete Gill and Mikkey Dee, were pretty good too – mainly because the many later albums didn’t tamper with the band’s fast-and-loud formula.  Lemmy surely believed the old adage that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.  Mind you, I think his finest late-career moment wasn’t with Motörhead but with Dave Grohl’s 2004 project Probot, when he and Grohl collaborated for the rousing song Shake Your Blood.

 

In 1997 I had my first opportunity to see Motörhead live.  I was living in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo and the band were booked to play a gig at the local venue Sapporo Factory (which appropriately enough was a former beer brewery).  Alas, the gig clashed with a rather important family event – my sister’s wedding, which necessitated me being back in Scotland – and I missed it.  Afterwards, a mate who’d attended the gig told me how Lemmy asked the crowd if they wanted to hear some ‘new songs’.  When the crowd shouted back “No!”, he retorted, “F**k off, I’m going to play the new songs anyway.”  My mate noted that it didn’t matter because “the new songs sounded exactly the same as the old ones.”

 

Luckily, I got around to seeing the band twice during the noughties, both times while I was living in England: in 2004 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and in 2008 in Norwich.  At the Newcastle gig, Motörhead performed a song by the legendary New York punk band the Ramones in honour of their guitarist Johnny Ramone, who’d recently passed away.  There seemed to be a curse on the Ramones because their founding members were dropping like flies at the time.  Lemmy announced wearily, “We keep saying we’re never going to play another Ramones song again.  But then another one of the bastards goes and dies on us and we have to play another Ramones song, as a tribute.”  Well, we’re now in 2018 and by a sad coincidence not only has the entire classic line-up of the Ramones expired – Joey Ramone in 2001, Dee Dee in 2002, Johnny in 2004 and Tommy in 2014 – but so too has that of Motörhead.

 

Of course, they themselves may be gone, but their music remains.  I’ll finish this post by paraphrasing one of the characters at the end of the 1982 movie Mad Max II – that’s the last we’ll ever see of them, but they live now in our memories.  And on our stereo systems.

 

© Bronze Records

 

My favourite films of 2017

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Better late than never – well, I’ve been off on holiday for the past fortnight – here’s a round-up of the films I saw in 2017 and liked best.  My definition of a 2017 film is simply one that was released in the UK during the year.  I should say I’ve been extremely lazy about watching movies this last year and there are many I haven’t seen – indeed, I have DVDs of The Killing of a Sacred Dear, It Comes at Night, Toni Erdmann and the remake of The Beguiled sitting on my table at this very moment, waiting to be watched.

 

Baby Driver

Edgar Wright’s sleek, shiny riff on seemingly every bank-heist and car-chase movie made in the 1960s and 1970s – Bullit (1968), The Italian Job (1969), The French Connection (1971), Vanishing Point (1971), The Getaway (1972), The Driver (1978), etc. – is a triumph of style over substance.  But what the hell?  I loved it and I think I’m entitled to one guilty pleasure in 2017.

 

And few things are more pleasurable in this tale of a young getaway-car driver (Ansel Elgort) being forced by his boss (Kevin Spacy) to work with ever-more dysfunctional groups of bank robbers than its use of music.  Edgar Wright’s movies always have great soundtracks, but the songs here – everything from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Bellbottoms to Focus’s Hocus Pocus – have never been as seamlessly and exhilaratingly woven into the action.

 

Blade Runner 2049

With Blade Runner 2049 Canadian director Denis Villeneuve achieved the impossible.  He crafted a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece that was as haunting, elegiac, philosophical and visually overwhelming as the original.

 

A Dark Song

Films usually make the practice of magic look easy.  You draw a circle, recite an incantation, perform a sacrifice and – hey presto! – your wish is granted.  The little-seen but fascinating Irish horror movie A Dark Song, directed by newcomer Liam Gavin, takes a different approach, however.  Here, fulfilling your goals with magic requires gruelling effort, endless repetition, numbing attention to detail, painful self-deprivation and much, much time.  A Dark Song has a bereaved mother (Catherine Walker) subjecting herself to months of confinement in a remote house carrying out arcane rituals under the unsympathetic eye of a hired occultist (Steve Oram) in the hope that eventually – eventually – she’ll gain access to a realm of angels and demons where she can communicate with her dead son.  It’s entirely possible, though, that Oram is a charlatan who’s doing this to cheat her out of a lot of money.

 

Inevitably, it’s something of an anti-climax when the angels and demons finally appear – they seem both too generic and too strange.  But the getting-there in A Dark Song is absolutely engrossing.

 

© Syncopy Inc. / Warner Bros

 

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s epic recreation of the evacuation of 340,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940 suffered from unfortunate timing.  It was released a year after the British public, by a small majority, voted to leave the European Union.  Predictably, the film was seized upon by right-wing Brexiters as a timely reminder of what plucky little Britain is capable of when it finds itself in a tight spot – especially when quitting the European mainland is involved – while liberal Remainers lamented about it wallowing in nostalgia.  Well, bollocks to thatDunkirk is just a great film and writer-director Nolan deserves kudos for avoiding the usual war-movie clichés and applying his own special style to it.

 

Dunkirk is refreshingly un-clichéd in its depiction of the ordinary soldiers.  They’re frightened young men, scarcely more than boys, who aren’t being heroic but are simply trying to survive (and who expect to be ‘spat at in the streets’ for failure and cowardice if they do make it back to Britain).  Meanwhile, Nolan indulges his customary fondness for fragmented narratives and cuts between three different storylines that are happening over different time-frames and are Russian-doll-like in their sizes – a week when some soldiers struggle to stay alive on the French beaches, a day when an English yachtsman (a splendidly gallant and focused Mark Rylance) and his teenaged crew cross the channel to do their bit in rescuing the troops, and a few hours when two RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) fight off enemy aircraft trying to decimate the men and boats below.  Gradually and satisfyingly, the storylines converge on Rylance’s little boat.  And also deserving praise is the intense and unsettling music by Hans Zimmer, which cranks up the tension to near-unbearable levels.

 

Free Fire

I said Baby Driver was my one guilty pleasure of 2017.  Well, I lied.  Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire was my other guilty pleasure of the year.  It doesn’t have a story so much as a situation – a 1970s arms deal goes wrong in a warehouse, so that the IRA men doing the purchasing (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley), the intermediaries (Brie Larson, Armie Hammer), the dealer (a marvellously annoying Sharlto Copley) and various associates and henchmen spend most of the film’s 90 minutes pinned down and gradually being shot to shreds in a massive and complicated gun-battle.  Sneakily, this saves Wheatley the bother of having to write a proper script.  But the élan with which he directs the proceedings, the bickering, bitching dialogue (“As gorgeous as ever!” Copley tells Larson.  “Well, you’ve put on a bit of weight.  Did someone impregnate you?”) and the performances by the increasingly bullet-ridden cast make Free Fire a deliriously stylish – if not particularly substantial – experience.

 

© Rook Films / Film 4 Productions

 

Get Out

The classiest horror movie of 2017, Jordan Peele’s Get Out uses as its starting point the uncomfortable experiences of a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) enduring a weekend at the well-to-do countryside home of his white girlfriend’s family.  Her family and friends are soon making him cringe with their efforts to virtue-signal their liberalism and non-racism, enthusing about Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and the general wonderfulness of all things black, whilst simultaneously turning a blind eye to the fact that black servants are bringing them their food and drinks.  This being a horror film, Get Out reaches a point where it stops being a painful, satirical comedy of manners and starts being something altogether more paranoid and scary.  The result is impressively gripping but Get Out is to be applauded too for its humour.  Particularly funny is the hero’s excitable best mate (Lil Rel Howery), who’s the first person to realise something is seriously wrong: “You gotta get the f**k outta there, man!  You in some Eyes Wide Shut situation!  Leave, mother**ker!”

 

The Handmaiden

For The Handmaiden, South Korean director Park Chan-wook audaciously took Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel of intrigue, duplicity, kinkiness and illicit (for the time) love, and transplanted its story from Victorian England to early 20th century Korea.  The resulting work is lusciously colourful and exotic.  It benefits too from spirited performances by actresses Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri as the identity-swapping heiress and maidservant at the centre of the plot.

 

© Moho Film / Yong Film / CJ Entertainment

 

The Love Witch

If Baby Driver was an aural treat, Anne Biller’s fascinating supernatural / feminist fantasy The Love Witch was 2017’s greatest visual treat.  Its story of a young witch (Samantha Robinson), who’s self-confessedly ‘addicted to love’ and will weave any spell and wreak any havoc in order to get it, is set in a kitsch, retro-1970s California where the frocks, hats, lipstick, nail varnish, eye shadow, sportscars, suitcases, wallpapers, upholstery and candles are a gorgeous rainbow of crimsons, light blues, lavenders, pinks and cherry reds.  The film itself is a tad long, but it’s highly enjoyable, with its sweet-but-sinister script containing plenty of satirical barbs about the lengths a spell-weaving gal has to go to find love in a man’s world.

 

Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, like Dunkirk, features a triptych of narratives – though here the narratives are in chronological order, showing the tribulations of the central character as a child (Alex Hibbert), adolescent (Ashton Sanders) and young man (Trevante Rhodes) while he wrestles with bullies, criminality, an errant mother and a growing awareness (and acceptance) of his homosexuality.  Brilliantly written and beautifully, almost poetically, filmed, Moonlight is a rare beast indeed, a Best Picture winner at the Oscars that actually deserved to win Best Picture.

 

© A24 / Plan B Entertainment

 

A Happy New Year as 2018 blaws in

 

Early in 2017 I posted something on this blog with the title Caledonian Culture War.  This was about the introduction in Scotland of baby boxes – from 2017, the parents of every new-born child in Scotland will receive a box full of baby-friendly goodies like a blanket, changing mat, towel, reusable nappy, sponge and thermometer, with the box itself able to double up as a crib.  Also in the box is a poem of welcome to the bairn written by Jackie Kay, Scotland’s Makar (poet laureate).  This is composed in Scots English and begins: “O ma darlin wee one / At last you are here in the wurld / And wi’ aa your wisdom / Your een bricht as the stars…

 

Unbelievably, some people had a problem with this.  And in the post, I stated I had a problem with them having a problem with it.

 

Yesterday I was surprised and delighted to find in this blog’s inbox an email from Jackie Kay, who’d evidently read the post and had decided to include me in her New Year greetings.  The greeting came in the form of a short poem, part of which addresses the baby-boxes controversy.  You can read it in full at the bottom of the Caledonian Culture War post, but I’ll reproduce the ending of the poem here, as the sentiment expressed is perfect for the beginning of 2018.

 

“…happy new year yin and all, wee yins and big yins and – here’s tae us taking a snip at oor cultivated cringe – and turning the whinge down to a low peep in this year about to blaw in, the year 2018, wha’s like us?!”

 

So as 2018 blaws in, I wish you all a happy, cringe-free and whinge-free New Year too.  Though I have no doubt that on this blog I will continue to find things to whinge about from time to time.

 

According to Western Christianity, today is the 8th day of Christmas, so technically we’re still in the middle of the festive season.  Here are photos I took the other night of the Christmas tree and New Year greeting outside the Asok Skytrain station on Bangkok’s Sumhumvit Road.