Monday, 3 December 2018

FROM THE JAM, Open, Norwich, 1 December 2018 review

Mod revivalists The Jam may split up in 1982, but thanks to bassist Bruce Foxton (below) their musical legacy is in rude health.

Will they do ‘Eton Rifles’, Lurch?” “They’ll do ‘Eton Rifles’, Rob.”

On the way to Norwich, myself and my friend Lurch had a lively discussion. Namely, the appalling state of the Brexit negotiations and how, as apparently one of the richest countries in the world, we now have an alarming amount of people living on the street, and a National Health Service – particularly in the mental health sector – on the verge of disintegration. Paul Weller of The Jam’s lyric, “You’ll see kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns”, could easily be amended to “You’ll see kidney machines replaced by Brexit and no fun, delivering a political statement as contemporary as the original was in 1980.

I bang on about it a lot, but 1) a lot of the pop music I grew up listening to in the late 1970s and early 1980s was political – punk, New Wave, 2-Tone, Billy Bragg – and 2) back then, our social lives mostly revolved around dancing to, making and/or watching live music.

40 years later it still does. Walking to the rather brilliant new-ish venue the Open up Norwich’s party capital Prince of Wales Road, where the Saturday night city beat had already started and maybe the punks and the corner boys still sprang into action, we were here for the 40th anniversary tour of The Jam’s third LP, 1978’s All Mod Cons. It was the album that finally made people sit up and take notice of the three Mod punks, confirming the early promise of the band’s formative singles ‘In the City’ and ‘All Around the World’.

Supporting are speed-rhythm-and-blues outfit Nine Below Zero, fronted by ace face Dennis Greaves who, back in the day, used to do hand stands across the stage; these days, as he fields lead guitar, he endearingly looks more like Alfred Burke from Public Eye playing Ronnie Lane. Backed up by harmonica maestro Mark Feltham, who’s worked with everyone from Joe Cocker to Oasis, Greaves and co. – it’s Greaves junior on drums now, with “young man” Ben Willis on bass – rip through a short but urgent set, with ‘Johnny Weekend’, ‘Homework’ and, of course, ‘11+11’ the highlights. Afterwards, the appealingly geezerish Greaves is good enough to sign the shirt of a young Mod in the front row.

With the headliners imminent, the front rows are starting to get packed. From what I could see looking out over the predominantly grey heads of the audience, there were roughly twenty people in the Open under 50. No wonder the female bouncer who faced us during From The Jam’s set looked vaguely alarmed throughout. She was probably estimating the amount of potential coronaries in the mosh pit.

Where do you start with The Jam? In Paul Weller, they were fronted by a Woking youngster who had a literate, polemical cynicism beyond his years, and pretty much monopolised the UK singles chart from 1978 until their split in 1982. What’s less well known is that Weller could write glorious romantic numbers like ‘Fly’, ‘It’s Too Bad’, ‘English Rose’ and ‘That’s Entertainment’ that captured the first, adolescent rush of passion in a relationship, together with the singular, prosaic nature of love in a cold English climate: “Cuddling a warm girl and smelling stale perfume… Feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away.”

Three of the above songs are on All Mod Cons and, tonight, From The Jam play all four to an ecstatic reception. In some ways, the band are a curious live proposition: one step away from a brilliant tribute band, with guitarist and vocalist Russell Hastings (left) resembling a slightly shorter Weller, they’re awarded legitimacy by the presence of original Jam bassist Bruce Foxton. He was there when these songs were written, and together with original drummer Rick Buckler was instrumental in their musical arrangements. You can’t get more official that that, and it’s a sign of The Jam set-up’s ongoing integrity that the title of Foxton’s ensemble acknowledges his musical heritage, while at the same time distinguishing the band from the original.

My favourite Jam album is Setting Sons (1979), but All Mod Cons is notable for the flowering maturity of Weller’s lyrical vision, by turns scathing about the vacuous nature of the entertainment industry and overnight fame (‘All Mod Cons’, ‘To Be Someone’), the grim state of the UK (‘Mr Clean’, ‘A Bomb in Wardour Street’, ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’), together with an introspective look at the nature of modern life (‘In the Crowd’, ‘The Place I Love’). It’s all played at a frantic pace that suggested the band had just worked out what their instruments were really for and weren’t going to waste a second.

Foxton and Hastings, backed up by drummer Mike Randon and keyboard player Andy Fairclough (no relation, sadly) play with the same fire as the original line up. I saw From The Jam at The Waterfront a few years ago, but they seem much more comfortable and assured tonight. From All Mod Cons, they move on to deliver classics such as ‘A Town Called Malice’, ‘News of the World’, ‘Start!’ and ‘Smithers-Jones’. God, they still sound good.

My all time favourite song is left to the encore. The instrumental cascade at the beginning of The Eton Rifles’ really does sound like a row going on down near Slough. As it’s such a special song – Weller came up with the lyric “What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?” when he was 20, defining generations of class war in Britain in one line – I try for my one-song-mosh per gig, but things are just a bit too boisterous this time. I retreat for some lone grooving.

Rifles’ with ‘Going Underground’, at the end of the evening From The Jam group together at the front of the stage for a touchingly old fashioned, appreciative bow. Foxton, a man of few words during a gig, is moved to affirm the show as “a great night.”

As we walk back to the car park, Prince of Wales Road looks like a scene from
That’s Entertainment’. If you’re a musician who writes about universal constants like day to day living, being young and broke and love and loss, your songs will always be relevant, but it’s doubly amazing how pertinent The Jam’s political numbers, principally The Eton Rifles’, Going Underground’ and ‘A Town Called Malice’ still are. I sincerely wish they weren’t.

While going to see musical heroes from your distant youth in 2018 is something of a welcome dream mixed with nostalgia, as a middle aged man I’ll continue to rage against the dying of the light to the inspiring, radical soundtrack of The Jam (among others). It’s no exaggeration to say that music this good and this timeless helps keep me alive.

Hello, hurrah...

Tuesday, 30 October 2018


Queen frontman Freddie Mercury lives again a straightforward story of rock and roll redemption that will have you punching the air.

Bohemian Rhapsody
is a fairy tale film. There are three princes – guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor; a beautiful queen – Mr Freddie Mercury; a damsel in distress – Freddie’s lifelong muse, Mary Austin, and a black hearted villain – Iago-esque band fixer Paul Prenter. There’s even a wise wizard – financial-adviser-turned-manager, Jim “Miami” Beach.

Queen were a rock band like no one else. Between May’s inspiring electric power chords and Mercury’s high camp sensibility, they mined opera, jazz, disco, 1950s rock and roll, funk, Do-Wop and hard rock, among other genres, to produce a fizzing, gender-bending musical cocktail that was truly a one off. In some ways they were similar to David Bowie, that other popular music colossus of the 1970s. Queen attempted what would be now be called alternative rock only once, on 1980’s ‘Under Pressure’, fittingly enough with Bowie himself.

If I have a criticism of the film, it’s that there’s no sense of a changing musical landscape to measure Queen against. The closest the film gets is when Freddie says he’s “fed up with the anthems” and John Deacon starts playing the funky strut of ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. “That’s not us! It’s disco!” objects Taylor. “It’s Queen,” Deacon replies. He’s right.

There’s also some liberty taken with the band’s timeline. They perform ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ on their 1975 American tour – it wasn’t committed to vinyl until 1978 – and are shown recording ‘We Will Rock You’ in 1980, when it was actually released four years before. Freddie’s moving admission to his band mates that he had AIDS happened the year after Live Aid, but in the context of the film it makes dramatic sense, as they hit the stage united behind a lead singer they know has limited time left.

This revision of the Queen chronology fits because, as the film shows, Freddie Mercury was very much the invented alter-ego of Farrokh Bulsara, son of a Zanzibar refugee, who earned his first wage packet as a baggage handler at Heathrow. In the well-worn showbiz theme of the path of excess not necessarily leading to the palace of wisdom, Mercury initially marginalises his blood family, drifts away from his soul-mate Mary because of his sexuality and becomes a stranger to himself, before subsequently finding redemption.

Throughout, May (Gwilym Lee) and Deacon (Jospeh Mazzello) are presented as what they were when Freddie first met them, amiable academics who had more than a knack for rock and roll. Mercury (Rami Malek) has a more fractious relationship with Taylor (Ben Hardy) – who studied to be a dentist, unlikely as that may seem – but acknowledges that he was essential to Queen’s collective chemistry, as he would always “push back” against Freddie’s more indulgent notions.

There’s a clever directorial touch that bookends the film. At the beginning, Mercury is shown preparing for the 1985 Live Aid charity concert and entering the backstage area at Wembley Stadium on his own. At the end, when he’s reconciled with himself, his friends and both families – the other members of Queen and his relatives – we see the whole band arrive at Wembley and take the stage.

And what a stage that was. It says something that I’m now old enough that events I experienced are having movies made about them. But still… if Bohemian Rhapsody was going to finish with anything it was going to be Queen’s set at Live Aid that made the day and stole the show. Neatly, we only see excerpts from the band’s live performances up until this point, and the highlights of the Live Aid songs are presented in full. By this point, Rami Malek is Freddie Mercury to the absolute life and you can’t help willing them on to seize the day. As they power through ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Radio Ga Ga’, ‘Hammer to Fall’ and ‘We are the Champions’, charity donations hit the magic number of £1,000,000 and people were applauding in the cinema.

Bohemian Rhapsody is a fairy tale. I think Freddie would have been both highly amused and very moved by that.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018


Inclusive, dark, moving, funny... Doctor Who is back. Oh, and
he's now a lady.

Fourth Doctor actor Tom Baker once said that the role of the Doctor was “actor proof”. That’s debatable, but what Jodie Whitakker conclusively proved in
The Woman Who Fell to Earth, her debut story and the debut story for the first female Doctor, was that the ‘issue’ of being a woman is completely irrelevant – the part is gender proof.

Witty, open and exuberant, the new Doctor was immediately endearing, a refreshing change from Peter Capaldi’s equally compelling angst and gravitas. She’s someone you took to immediately and wanted to spend time with. This feeling slotted neatly into head writer/showrunner Chris Chibnall’s decision to (re)introduce the Doctor – and by extension Doctor Who itself – through the eyes of five people drawn into her charismatic orbit: ex-bus driver Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh), his wife Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), her grandson Ryan (Tosin Cole) and his old school friend Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), an ingenue police officer.

I’m not a 100% sure, but this may be the first story for a long time when there’s been no mention of the Doctor being a Time Lord. In fact, there’s hardly any back story AT ALL: when she mentions the TARDIS and regeneration, the Doctor gives cursory explanations. In Jon Pertwee’s debut Spearhead from Space (1970), a story with a comparable ‘year zero’ approach to launching a new Doctor with, again, no mention of his Time Lord origins, the TARDIS was still referred to as a time and space machine. In The Woman Who Fell to Earth this is kept deliberately vague – a tantalising “ship” is all we got.

Thematically, most of the main characters have lives that need fixing, which may explain why they’re literally in the dark for most of the story, resisting with an alien incursion over one (very long) Sheffield night. The Doctor doesn’t know who she is, Ryan has dyspraxia and is estranged from his father, Graham battles to be accepted as Ryan’s step-grandad and Yaz is frustrated by the lack of challenging police call outs. Elsewhere, alien target Karl (Jonny Dixon) is trying to build his self esteem with self improvement tutorials, while the alien menace himself also has confidence issues. Significantly Grace, the only character happy in her own skin and who admits to enjoying danger, is the one supporting character who dies. (This looks like a set up for the similarly natured Doctor to take her place in Graham’s life, a point specifically made when he says to her, “that’s just what Grace would say.”)

Self empowerment has been a theme in the life journeys of Doctor Who companionssorry, friendsever since the series came back in 2005, but it was presented here without the sometimes sledgehammer-subtle treatment of the message that occurred under previous showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat. Attending the funeral of an important person in your life is a poignant time to reflect on what you have and haven’t done with your own, so Graham’s moving eulogy at Grace’s, and Ryan’s YouTube tribute to his gran, made perfect sense here. The implication for all of them to sort themselves out was there without the need for any histrionic ‘seize the day’-style speeches.

The incidental music score was subtle
too, as well as minimalist and moody. New composer Segun Akinola seems to have taken inspiration from the soundscapes of the 1960s’ era of the show – noticeably so in his arrangement of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme – as the score was a mesmerising cocktail of music and sound effect, at the same time referencing modern electronica. This approach was extremely effective in creating a nocturnal atmosphere of threat and unease, a vibe that director Jamie Childs was completely in tune with.

There were some lapses in the determined attempt at ‘realism’. How many construction workers would really take the word of two people they’d never seen before, with no ID or authorisation, and willingly abandon their work site, especially if they were on lucrative night-time wages? Likewise, the average wait for a funeral is three weeks – more, if the death is unusual, as Grace’s was – so would the Doctor really not change out of her predecessor’s clothes in all that time? No wonder she was standing at the back of the church (presumably with the door open and down-wind of the congregation).

The science fiction element was a mixed bag. The DNA bombs were unquestionably a great – and very nasty – idea, while the “gathering coils” were suitably bizarre, writhing like a nest of serpents to imply their quasi-organic nature. Extra terrestrials using the Earth as a hunting ground is, though, a direct crib from the Predator films, while the look of “Tim Shaw” – a killer who decorates himself with the teeth of his victims as trophies – is a visual steal from the SyFy Channel’s horror anthology, Channel Zero: Candle Cove (2016), which featured a similar molar obsessed entity (above). Having said that, the idea of a would-be warlord who’s a “double cheat” is an appealing concept, and Samuel Oatley’s self important performance was good enough to make me wish for a return match, possibly indicated by the alien warrior teleporting before he was killed.

After all the pointless, nearly year-long invective on the internet based on some people dismissing a new approach to Doctor Who before they’d even seen it, over nine million people tuning in is a terrific thumbs up. The viewing figures will probably level off, but it’s a very promising start. And finally, that Carpool Karaoke clip of the main cast miming to Heart’s 1987 power ballad Alone is bloody hilarious. If they’re having that much fun, it’s a good indication that we will.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

BIG COUNTRY, Norwich Waterfront, 11 November 2017

More retro-rocking, with another band that has special significance for me.

"In a big country / dreams stay with you..."

When New Wavers The Skids, hailing from Dunfermline in Scotland, called it a day in 1981 I was mortified. They were the first band I ever saw live. Of all the gigs I’ve seen – and there have been more than a few – the details of that great night at the Lower Common Room at the University of East Anglia remain crystal clear.

After that, I thought that would be it for witnessing guitarist Stuart Adamson’s distinctive, soaring melodies live (rightly, he was christened “the new Jimi Hendrix” by no greater authority than iconic indie DJ John Peel). Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when in the September of 1982 a new, uplifting sonic assault in the manner of The Skids blasted out of the radio. That was ‘Harvest Home’, the first single of Adamson’s new band Big Country, and this time he was front and centre, lead singer as well as guitarist.

Together with Bruce Watson (second guitar), Tony Butler (bass), and Mark Brezezicki (drums), decked out in signature tartan shirts, for the next six years Big Country jumped and weaved across the world’s concert stages, taking Adamson’s Celtic guitar sound and life-affirming lyrics further than The Skids ever had. Memorably, in 1987 I saw them support David Bowie on The Glass Spider tour at Wembley Stadium. Adamson’s impromptu take on the riff of ‘Rebel Rebel’ was the best thing about that gig.

It couldn’t last, of course – nothing ever does. Sales began waning with 1991’s fifth album, No Place Like Home. Unlike their nearest contemporaries U2, Big Country didn’t (or couldn’t) reinvent themselves to keep up with, or stay ahead of, musical trends; in 1991, U2 released Achtung Baby, an album informed by electronica and dance music that largely consigned to history their previous incarnation as humourless anthem rockers. Big County, meanwhile, stuck with what they did best.

The other side to Adamson’s upbeat soundscapes was a tendency towards depression, which didn’t go well with the guitarist’s alcoholism, or the downturn in sales. The original line up of Big Country called it a day with 1999’s Driving to Damascus. Two years later, to the distress and sadness of many, Adamson sadly took his own life.

These days, it seems, no musician is really dead. This year at Lowestoft’s Marina, we’ve had tribute acts for The Carpenters, George Michael, Johnny Cash and Queen: if people still want to hear their songs, it seems someone will always be prepared to go out there and sing them. 2017’s Big Country are a different proposition. Original members Brezezicki and Watson now play alongside the latter’s son Jamie on guitar, with Scott Whitley (bass) and Simon Hough on lead vocals and acoustic guitar. Touchingly, there’s an empty space in the middle of the stage in honour of the absent Adamson.

(Copyright: Dawn Tomlin)
Watson Senior (left) makes for an amiable and amusing master of ceremonies, so impressed by an audience member wearing a years-old tour T-shirt that he let him have a new one for free. The band’s live attack is as impressive as it ever was, with Hough doing a remarkable job of approximating Adamson’s vocal style.

The set list is taken mostly from the first three albums, when the Big Country sound was at its most urgent: turbo-charged singalongs like ‘Fields of Fire’, ‘Lost Patrol’, ‘King of Emotion’, ‘Look Away’ and, obviously, ‘In a Big Country’ rattled the rafters as effectively as they did in the old days. A notable change of pace was the contemplative ‘Ships’, which hinted at what might have been if Big Country had experimented more confidently with their musical template.

The set-piece performance came with ‘Chance’, arguably the best song in Big Country’s catalogue. Fittingly, it’s a companion to The Skids’ first single, ‘Charles’. That dealt with a factory worker worn down by his dead-end job, whereas ‘Chance’ is about a young woman whose life is stolen from her by her partner after he abandons her with their two sons. The call-and-response chorus – “Oh, lord, where did that feeling go? / Oh, lord, I never felt so low” – is both melancholy and punch-the-air elevating, particularly when the guitars crash in at the end after a minimal build up. At this distance, those lyrics can, perhaps, be seen as an insight into Stuart’s sometimes depressed mind-set… Whatever, when the audience at the Waterfront sang the chorus back to Big Country they were louder than the band, a show of passion which clearly delighted the visiting Scotsmen.

(Copyright: Dawn Tomlin)
Before they left the stage, Brezezicki (left) came to the microphone to inform us that he and Watson had been working together in Big Country for, astonishingly, nearly forty years. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: brilliant music is timeless.

I’m already looking forward to next year when they come back to Norwich to play their first album The Crossing. I will carry you home...

Thursday, 19 October 2017


Personality politics in Shakespeare’s late tragedy make for a politically relevant night out.  

Sope Dirisu as Coriolanus (Image copyright: RSC)

I’ve recently started volunteering at the Marina Theatre in Lowestoft. One of the reasons I was drawn to it, apart from an interest in all things entertainment, was because, thanks to advances in technology, the Marina now presents screenings of theatrical productions from around the country. The town is in for a varied cultural feast in the coming months, as the Marina plays host to Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, Tennessee Williams’ febrile drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Shakespeare’s Roman epic Julius Caesar, among others.

I can’t recommend this way of watching theatre highly enough. It’s like you’re sitting in all the best seats in the house at once, with the benefit of a zoom lens so you can focus on intimate details of expression and nuance, as well as take in all the action that’s happening on the stage in long shot. When you consider that the average seat at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre or at the National Theatre is around £30, £15 for this all-inclusive viewing experience is staggeringly good value for money (even if it is slightly surreal being able to watch the televised audience eat their ice cream during the interval).

The Marina’s presentation on Thursday 12 October, direct from London’s Barbican Theatre, was Coriolanus, another of Shakespeare’s Roman plays and part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Rome season, that also includes Titus Andronicus and William Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage. The RSC delivers a comprehensive package, including a pre-match style chat with the director Angus Jackson, who provides some historical context and insight into why the production was staged in modern dress. Principally, Jackson reasoned that the “hierarchy of togas” among the Roman nobles, Senate and Tribunes would be “hard to spot” for a modern audience.

(Image copyright: RSC)
There was more to it than that. One of Shakespeare’s last tragedies, it’s full of contemporary resonances which the decision to dress the production in a modern way reinforces. When the “common people” begin rioting because they’re starving, the ruling caste of patricians appease them by creating two people’s representatives, or Tribunes (Jackie Morrison and Martina Laird, left), who change the previously inaccessible political process of the Roman Senate. The way Morrison’s Sicinus and Laird’s Junius are styled and played – though its subtly done – brings to mind the Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon Labour’s Diane Abbott, militant MPs who in one way or another have had a radical impact on British politics.

The Tribunes’ nemesis is the charismatic but arrogant Roman general Caius Martius (Sope Dirisu), who Rome's blue-collar class blame for depriving them of grain, while Martius himself makes no secret of his contempt for them. When Caius wins a decisive battle against the bordering Volscians, led by his old adversary Tullus Aufidius (James Corrigan), for the town of Corioli, he is re-christened ‘Coriolanus’. The jubilant patricians encourage him to stand as Rome’s consul, a political move that brings Coriolanus into conflict with the Tribunes, resulting in his banishment from Rome and egotistical desire for revenge at the head of Aufidius’ Volscian army.

In the RSC’s 2017 Coriolanus, you can see reflected modern leaders like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage, who are big on personality but have a casual disregard for reasoned policy, political allegiances and civil liberties – the Tribunes suspect Martius could become a tyrant, and he only ever has his own selfish interests at heart (or those of his mother Volumnia (Haydn Gwynn), the only person who can sway his will), an attitude which proves to be his downfall.

Dirisu’s Coriolanus has a formidable, chiselled physicality, particularly in the battle scenes and a protracted duel with Auffidius, although he is slightly more one dimensional as a political speaker and in the family scenes. In Shakespeare’s most linear tragedy, where the central figure lacks the complexity of a Hamlet, Lear or a Macbeth and is more of a symbol, perhaps that’s deliberate.

(Image copyright: RSC)
Coriolanus is given dramatic context by Paul Jesson’s Menenius, the likeable patrician Senator who initially champions Martius’ nomination as consul. Jesson’s is an engaging and humane performance, made all the more affecting when he collapses emotionally after his pleas for Coriolanus to spare Rome are rejected by his former protégé. James Corrigan’s Auffidius (right) – who, for me, earns the acting honours in this production – through a mesmerising combination of humour, suspicion, pragmatic insight and respect (that might be slightly homoerotic), eventually realises how dangerous and unpredictable a force Coriolanus is. Haydn Gwynne shares the acting plaudits, sensitively and unwittingly sealing her son’s fate by appealing to his better nature. Her performance is so good that you almost overlook this rather obvious piece of plotting that sets up the climax of the play.

With stark production design based around a grilled metal wall and shutter, this Coriolanus succeeds as a grim warning about personality politics. Once again, William S. proves himself to be one of the most prophetic writers in the English language, with a play that’s hundreds of years old but still remarkably up to the minute.

All in all, a satisfying cultural night out in Lowestoft and a significant feather in the theatrical cap of the Marina.