Archive for the 'politics' Category

Now’s the time

18 January 2016

basquiat-nows-the-time-1985

I collected a small print of Basquiat’s picture Now’s the time from the framers at the weekend. I’d bought it at the Guggenhein in Bilbao in the summer, when I visited the  exhibition of his works there. It was displayed there with a loop of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, made at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. He uses the phrase as a recurring motif in one of the most important passages in the speech (my emphasis):

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

Both Basquiat and King, of course, were drawing explicitly or implicitly on a famous track by Charlie Parker, recorded in 1945. Yes, the image is of Miles Davis, who also played on the session.

In his Parker biography Bird Lives! Ross Russell describes the track.

“Now’s The Time” is catchy and unforgettable, yet difficult to repeat. It has the extra-dimensional quality that distinguishes master works, however small. It is timeless. Its three minutes seem much longer. Ot is perfectly balanced, perfectly logical, haunting, eerie, the finest achievement of the boppers to that point. [p196]

There are other versions, but what for me connects this first recording to the MLK speech is the insistent piano at the the beginning, which demands the listener’s attention in the same way that King demands your attention as he repeats the phrase in that passage.

And one of the things I like about it is that part of that demand comes from the way that King breaks the so-called “rule of three,” and uses the phrase four times. Just when you think he’s going to move on, he insists that you hear it again. One more technical note: the use of a triad implies a completeness in the idea, but King’s rhetorical point is that the Civil Rights movement has not completed its work. He spells this out in the next paragraph of the speech (again, my emphasis):

This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.

“Now’s The Time” was recorded by Parker on 26th November 1945, and as far as the record label Savoy was concerned, this was the session at which the bebop sound clicked. (“The definitive session”, says Ross Russell.) This was despite the chaotic start to it. By Russell’s account, Thelonious Monk was supposed to play piano, but didn’t show, and Argonne Thornton, who happened to be in a nearby cafe, was drafted in. Gillespie was under contract to someone else, so he played uncredited. Miles Davis was nineteen, still at Juillard. Parker was late, and when he did arrive his reeds developed a squeak and a messenger was sent to midtown to get hold of spares.

And it attracted awful reviews. The jazz magazine Downbeat reviewed “Now’s The Time” together with “Billie’s Bounce”:

These two sides are excellent examples of the other side of the Gillespie craze – the bad taste and ill-advised fanaticism of Dizzy’s uninhibited style. Only Charlie Parker, who is a better musician and who deserves more credit than Dizzy for the style anyway, saves these from a bad fate. At that he’s far off form … This is the sort of stuff that has thrown innumerable impressionable young musicians out of stride, that has harmed many of them irreparably. [Ross Russell, p197]

Downbeat’s practice was to rate records on a scale of four down to one: the reviewer refused to rate “Now’s The Time”. But for his part, almost twenty years on, King knew his jazz. A year after the Lincoln Memorial speech he was at the Berlin Jazz Festival as the guest of Willy Brandt, then the mayor of West Berlin, and wrote an essay for the programme:

When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument. It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by jazz musicians.

Basquiat came back to Parker as a subject repeatedly during his short career, as explained in a fine post on the blog The Genealogy of Style. Here’s another picture, made two years before Now’s The Time, which celebrates that 1945 Savoy session.

basquiat-discography-two-1983

The Basquiat exhibition had mixed reviews: Griselda Murray Brown in the Financial Times found it “a fine retrospective,” while Jason Farago, reviewing it for The Guardian in Toronto, thought it sometimes patronising and over-interested in celebrity. Brown liked the used of the King recording; Farago hated it. For my part, I realised that I’d skimmed too many glossy magazine articles about Basquiat and his work, and assumed (wrongly, I now realised) that he was a street artist who had lucked into some ’80s New York radical chic. Instead I found work that was both edgy and relevant, unlike the Jeff Koons retrospective running elsewhere in the Guggenheim, which was about as interesting in 2015 as the work of Edwin Landseer.

One final note. King, of course, was assassinated at 39, five years after the speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Basquiat died of an overdose at the age of 27, three years after he made the “Now’s the time” image. Parker, who sold all the rights to the song for $50, cash in hand at the session, died at 34, nine years after the session. For all of them: now was the time.

Dying together

20 December 2015
Occupy_Design_z2

Poster for COP-21 in Paris, by Occupy Design.

For all the small spliters of optimism from the Paris COP-21 talks (and symbols and rhetoric do matter), the whole process reminded me of Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Swansong,  published earlier this year in The Guradian. Brecht wrote it about the long shadow of nuclear war, but physics has multiple ways of dealing with hubris.

 Swansong, by Bertolt Brecht

      Let the last inscription then run
      (That broken slab without readers):

The planet is going to burst,
Those it bred will destroy it.

As a way of living together we merely thought up capitalism.

Thinking of physics, we thought up rather more:
A way of dying together.

(Translation by John Willett)

The image at the top of the post is from the Brandalism project, and is used with thanks. It hacked Paris poster sites at the start of the Paris conference and replaced the posters with new images. 

The Village Against The World

22 August 2015

  
Dan Hancox’ The Village Against The World (Verso, 2014) is an account of Marinaleda, the anarcho-syndicalist village (my label) in Andalusia that has remade itself through 40 years of intense political battles with the Andalusian authorities. It turns out to be refleftive rather than uncritical, listening to the less sympathetic witnesses as well as the admirers. 

But there is a lot to admire. Some 20 years of smart and relentless political activism won the village enough land to farm, and, later, investment in processing plants. There is cheap co-operatively owned housing and good social facilities. The unemployment rate is a fraction of the rest of Andalusia. Sancho Gordillo, the mayor for 40 years, is the central figure in this process, is clearly an astute and principled politician, and an interesting theorist, who could have played on a bigger stage, though would likely have achieved less. 

Along the way there is some rich insight into the state of post-Franco Spain.

Will the village and its ideals survive Gordillo, who’s now in his 60s? That’s an open question, with which the book ends. Recommended.

Making claims

6 June 2015
One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This copy is one of two held at the British Library. It came from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, who died in 1631. In 1731, a fire at Ashburnam House in Westminster, where his library was then housed, destroyed or damaged many of the rare manuscripts, which is why this copy is burnt.

One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, held at the British Library.

The long history of the Magna Carta turns out to have been a lucky accident, or at least that’s my reading of it from the 800th anniversary exhibition at the British Library. King John signed it to placate a powerful group of barons who had taken up arms against the king in response to his heavy taxation and arbitrary behaviour, and had captured London. Having signed, John immediately cried foul, telling his protector, Pope Innocent III, that he had signed under duress (shades of Charles I, who has his own part in this story.) Innocent promptly issued a Papal Bull annulling the Charter.

Popes being Popes in the Middle Ages, that should have finished it off, except that John died a year later, leaving the 9-year old Henry III on the throne and his advisers needing to appease the barons, with Britain still in a state of civil war. The advisers reissued the Charter in both 1216 and 1217, the second time as part of the peace treaty that ended the civil war.

But the real breakthrough came in 1225, when Henry, no longer a minor, issued the fourth version of the Magna Carta in exchange for the grant of taxes, which also created a connection between representation and taxation.Importantly, he also stated that he did this with his “spontaneous and free will”, and affixed the Royal Seal.

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London to the faraway towns

8 March 2015

Satellite
The story about the radio producer Charles Parker, who made the radio ballads in the 1950s and 1960s, is that he wanted to hear the voices of ordinary people on the radio, and the invention of the portable Uher tape recorder gave him the chance. His politics collided with new technology to create a new way of working – a way of working that included the songs of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. For each of the radio ballads he would vanish from Broadcasting House for weeks on end, recording scores of hours of tape, to the chagrin of his employers at the BBC. They eventually fired him, despite his winning hatfuls of prizes for his innovative and radical work.

As Parker later recalled, in the days before the tape recorder arrived, the producer would drive into the country in a “bloody great Humber,” record people talking onto disc, transcribe their words, and hand the resulting scripts to actors. Well, lawdy luv-a-ducks, what a lark!

I came across Parker’s work, which was then out of print, while working as a current affairs producer for Radio Four. I’d read about it in one of the many critiques of media that were current in the 1980s, and promptly borrowed the recordings from the BBC Library. (They’ve since been re-released by Topic Records.)

After I left the BBC I wrote my own critique of the dominant discourse of Radio 4 News and Current Affairs, which if I recall correctly was headlined “London calling.” And the notion that “this is London” runs deep through Britain’s news and current affairs culture. It’s telling that sport and music can move to the BBC’s new centre in Salford, but news and current affairs is located more centrally than ever, TV and radio reunited in a back-to-the-future kind of a way at Broadcasting House, W1A, 1AA.

And this whole stream of personal history, long-repressed personal and media history was triggered by listening to James Robertson perform his monologue, “The News Where You Are.” No, it’s not a coincidence that he’s a Scot. The world just looks different from the far away towns.

The image of Parker interviewing at the top of the post is from the Library of Birmingham, and is used with thanks. The Charles Parker Archive Trust can be found online here.

 

The songs of Alex Glasgow

2 February 2015

The singer Alex Glasgow seems to have vanished from the shared memory since his death a bit more than a decade ago, which is a shame because he was a sharp observer and a fine songwriter. Even those songs which seem now to be of their time, in the ’60s and ’70s, are keen bits of social observation and social history.

Alex Glasgow was born in Gateshead in 1935, in the north-east of England, and worked much of his life in the area, at least until he emigrated unexpectedly to Australia in 1981. Certainly his most memorable work, such as the music for Alan Plater’s Close The Coalhouse Door, is deeply rooted in the culture and the history of the region. He wrote ‘Dance To Thi Daddy’ (at the top of the post) as the title song for the ’70s television series When The Boat Comes In, set in the region. He was also one of life’s radicals, with a caustic view of politics and politicians.

Plater wrote a fine obituary of Alex Glasgow in The Guardian in which he observed that the singer – described in Wikipedia*, completely wrongly, as a folk singer – was in fact a chansonnier – more like European singers such as Jacques Brel. In an English context, he’s closer to a theatre and music hall tradition; certainly a lot of his songs tell stories and many have punchlines – such as ‘Geordie Broon‘ or ‘Mummy Says‘ or ‘Festival Time.’

And although I first came across his work in Close The Coalhouse Door – for example ‘When It’s Ours,’ about the nationalisation of the British coal mines, which is a family favourite in my house – he also wrote a fine musical play about the 19th century north-eastern music hall star Joe Wilson. Since the words of 19th century music hall have often survived, but usually not the music, I think that Alex Glasgow must have put new settings to songs such as ‘Sally Wheatley.’

One of the the reasons I think Alex Glasgow’s work has disappeared from view was that it has been almost impossible to find. Last year, when I wanted to share his wonderful song ‘Socialist ABC’ with some younger colleagues, they said, ‘It must be on Youtube,’ only to find that it wasn’t.

Well, it is now – which is the reason for this post. Someone – it’s not clear who – uploaded a selection of his records to Youtube last November, including some that I thought had been deleted. I’d start with Songs Of Alex Glasgow Volume 3/Now And Then, and then move on to *Songs Volume 1 and 2, which starts with the Coalhouse Door songs. Northern Drift/Joe Lives! opens with a live recording of his live show with his long-time collaborator Henry Livings, which has good things in it, but is maybe more of an acquired taste. It closes with songs from his show about Joe Wilson.

* Yes, I know I should rewrite it. But it’s quite a big edit.

Update (3rd February 2015): because the uploads were labelled “Alex Glasgow – Topic”, I assumed in the original post that these had come from Topic Records. It turns out I was wrong about that. I have amended the post accordingly.

 

Churchill and his contradictions

25 January 2015

Winston_Churchill_1Everyone’s getting excited about Churchill, as we approach the 50th anniversary of his funeral in 1965, when Britain stopped for the day. And he is a genuinely interesting historical figure, full of contradictions. (I’ve written about him before here). In my upbringing, in a house infused by the mining culture of the north-east of England, his triumph over fascism as a wartime leader was always inflected by his history as Home Secretary, when he sent Metropolitan Police and troops into south Wales to “keep the peace” after rioting during a lockout at Tonypandy. (Churchill’s archive insists the notion that he sent troops to deal with the miners is a “myth”, but you can make what you will of his “personal message” to strikers: “We are holding back the soldiers for the present and sending only police.”)

And as Secretary of State for War in 1919, he sent 10,000 troops onto the streets of Glasgow in response to radical protests. It was “the largest deployment of British troops on native soil,” at least outside of northern Ireland.

It’s also true that had he died when hit by a car in New York in 1931 (curiously Hitler was also hit by a car in the same year), his career would be little more than a flamboyant curiosity: youthful promise, erratic politics, and some catastrophic failures. The Dardanelles disaster in World War 1 is still used as a case study in poor decision making.

Last year I found myself reading some of the history of Churchill’s “lost decade” in the ‘30s, in which he was right about appeasement and rearmament, foolish about India, and hopelessly misguided about the Abdication.

From that, some themes emerge. They’re below the fold.

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Twelve sides of Robert Wyatt

15 November 2014

wyatt1I’ve pretty much always loved the music of Robert Wyatt, who has announced his retirement as a musician at the age of 69. As he told Uncut,

I thought, train drivers retire when they’re 65, so I will, as well. I would say I’ve stopped, it’s a better word than retired. Fifty years in the saddle, it’s not nothing. It’s completely unplanned, my life, and it’s just reached this particular point. Other things have happened – I’m more taken up by politics, to be honest,than music at the moment.

The good news is that this gives me the chance to write something appreciative about him before waiting for his death. There’s a biography just come out, (reviewed here in LRB by Jeremy Harding) and, next week, a double compilation, the second disc of which has on it some intriguing looking collaborations, some of which are new to me. My Robert Wyatt playlist/mixtape is below.

But before we get to the videos, five or six things to admire about Robert Wyatt:

First, he had a terrible accident that wrecked his fine career as a jazz-rock drummer with Soft Machine, which left him in a wheelchair. He picked himself up, more or less literally, and rebuilt his career as a musician rather than feeling sorry for himself.

Second, that even in the darkest days of the 1980s, when Thatcherism and Reaganism did their worst, he didn’t give up trying or believing in the possiblilities for change. Two in particular: his 12″ EP Works In Progress was a moment of inspiration, and his contribution to Working Week’s “Venceremos” lifted the spirits. In fact, Gramsci has a famous phrase about “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, which Wyatt’s work exemplifies. (See “The Age of Self,” below”). Typical of Wyatt that when he left the UK for Spain when Thatcherism got too oppressive for him, he went to the mining area of Asturias.

Third, and related: his relentless musical curiosity, for music from around the world, from the radical tradition, from jazz, and for music that was dowright unfashionable when he recorded it. He seems to listen to everything. The first two are exemplified by his version of “Stalin Wasn’t Stalling,” first recorded during World War II, and his covers of Victor Jara (‘Te Recuerdo Amanda’) and Pablo Milanes’ song ‘Yolanda‘ on Works In Progress. The last one covers thimgs like his recording of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” at a time when it was, approximately, the least cool track in the universe.

Fourth, his openness. He has collaborated with almost everyone, as far as you can tell, on the basis of the quality of the music and ideas rather than reputation. When Comicopera came out in 2007, he said in an interview, “I like the idea of the record as a meeting place, where friends wander in and out.” He worked with Ben Watt when Watt was barely known (and those recordings are among the best things Watt has done); he worked with Ultramarine on their electronic LP United Kingdoms, adding vocals to some reworkings of 19th century ballad lyrics that seem prescient in the age of the new Poor Law: “Happy land, happy land, your fame resounds from shore to shore/Happy land, happy land, where ’tis a crime to be poor”. In turn, he’s been well served by other musicians, who find interpretaive space in his music: Annie Whitehead’s live recording Soupsongs is a fine collection, and so is the record by the French Orchestre National de Jazz. Ditto, the selection of Robert Wyatt covers by the Unthanks.

Fifth, his simplicity, sometimes accompanied by a white hot political anger, always accompanied by an internationalist worldview. “Palestine’s a country, or at least it used to be”, on Dondestan. Or “East Timor, who’s your fancy friend?” on Old Rottenhat. And his complexity: he’s always experimenting with something.

Sixth, the sense of his politics infuses everything, but as a senseability as much as a sense. There are very direct political songs, yes, but there’s a more important element, that his worldview – radical, dissident, critic, outsider – infuses all of his work and many of his choices. As when he chose to record Mongezi Fezi’s “Sonia” in 1975, with Fezi and other exiled South African musicians; he’s making a political commitment as well as a musical one. (Unlike, say, Paul Simon).

Anyway, here below the fold are twelve tracks from his career, from the dozens I could have chosen, that are worth listening to. For Wyatt fans, I’ve tried to avoid some of the obvious choices.

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The royalty at the front

31 August 2014

440px-Dusty_Springfield_in_het_Stedelijk_Museum_1

It’s always useful to be reminded of the essential stuffiness of the British establishment, as I was this week watching a documentary about the late Dusty Springfield. Dusty was, for my money, and by some distance, the greatest English “pop” voice of the post-war era. The documentary followed her complete career, from the successes of the sixties to the period in the seventies when her career went astray, but in the process (because of her sexuality, and because, unusually for the time, she’d talked about it in public), she became something of a gay icon.

Anyway, in 1979 she was appearing at the Royal Albert Hall, in front of Princess Margaret, and noticed the gay fans thronging the front of the stage, and said – a prepared remark, apparently:

It seems the royalty is not confined to the Royal Box.

Simon Bell, her backing singer, re-told the story. Princess Margaret didn’t like this, or possibly a humourless Palace protocol flunky was offended on her behalf. Either way, a letter duly came from the Palace instructing Dusty that she had to apologise, and sadly the singer complied. The offending moment was edited out of the DVD of the concert.

It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come in 30 years, but the story has some echoes of John Lennon at the Royal Variety Show in 1963, which Princess Margaret was also at:

Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.

 

Lennon’s remarks were clearly prepared as well – he has a look on his face that says, “Did you just spot me pulling the tail of the bourgeosie?” just as The Beatles kick into Twist and Shout – and he was careful not to mention the Royals by name, though nobody watching would have missed the point. While Lennon’s intro is still to be found online, Dusty’s remark has been edited out of the concert DVD. But then, talking about sexuality – or joking about it – always used to get you into more trouble than talking about class. How things have changed.

The picture at the top of the post is courtesy of Wikimedia, and is used with thanks.

 

Losing Scotland

19 April 2014

Image

Over at Open Democracy, Gerry Hassan has a good post offering five reasons why the Scottish pro-Union ‘Better Together’ campaign is losing momentum and losing ground. Here’s an extract:

[T]he ‘Better Together’ forces do not want this debate. They are fighting a battle which they would prefer not to, at a time not of their choosing, and when their political opponents are mobilised and galvinised. This fundamental cuts through everything that ‘Better Together’ does; behind their rhetoric they are running a defensive political contest and one of retreat. They are presiding over a virtual, rather than real political campaign: mostly without foot soldiers, made up of three party leaderships, parts of the mainstream media, and business organisations and corporate CEOs.

Some notes from me:

  1. You should never under-estimate the SNP. I met Alex Salmond in the late 1980s – in my then job as a television producer – when he led a group of 5 MPs (from memory) at Westminster and the devolution argument looked dead in the water. By any measure they have been the most successful political party in Britain over the last generation.
  2. From a Scots perspective I think the independence argument is too close to call. From the perspective of the rest of us, the best outcome is probably that the ‘Yes’ campaign loses the referendum by about 1%, creating irrestitable pressure for the “Devo-Max” option that Cameron cynically excluded from the ballot paper. Why? Because it would re-open the devolution argument everywhere else. Along with fairer voting systems. And let’s face it: the only parts of the country that have done at all well in the last decade are those that won some measure of self-control in the late 1990s. London included.
  3. There are cynics out there who think that the inept showing of the Conservatives in the campaign so far is because they’re trying to push Scotland out of the Union to enjoy an endless autumn of Conservative rule in England. I think this probably misunderstands the tin ear the Conservatives have had for Scotland ever since Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister decimated their Scottish political base. But even if it is true, there are dangers here for the Conservatives. The unionist story is part of their political identity (it is called the “Conservative and Unionist” party for a reason) in a way that isn’t true for Labour or the Liberal Democrats. And the party may be in long-term decline, despite some Gen Y straws in the wind. The combination of loss of membership and the loss of an ideological core could be fatal to the idea of the Conservative party.

The image at the top of this post is ‘Distressed Scotland Flag‘ by James Miller. His work can be found at Redbubble.

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