Saturday, 25 March 2017

All The Little Lights

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

It looks like a game at first, when the three girls in Jane Upton's play come together for a surprise birthday party on a make-shift campsite amongst all the rubbish down by the railway. Look closer, however, and beyond the supermarket cake and the games of dare on the track-lines, and it's clear that Joanne has got Lisa here for a reason.

Twelve year old Amy probably wouldn't understand. She's “cute, but not in a baby way,” but both Joanne and Lisa bear the scars of what happened at the grown-up parties with the man from the chippy. Lisa got out, to a nice house like those she used to make up stories about as she and Joanne peered through the windows. But unless Joanne does something soon, she'll never get out, and she'll take Amy down with her.

Inspired by recent cases of child sexual grooming gangs, in which some 'older' girls were used to procure younger ones, Upton's joint winner of the 2016 George Devine Most Promising Playwright award makes for a harrowing hour. This is made even more troubling by the lack of any adult onstage to be the bad guy. Instead, Joanne, played by Tessa Orange-Turner with flint-eyed vulnerability, is old enough to get just how damaged she is.

Presented by Fifth Word, an associate company of co-producers Nottingham Playhouse, and with support from the Safe and Sound charity, Laura Ford's production is brought to raw, unrelenting life by Orange-Turner, Esther-Grace Button as Amy and Sarah Hoare as Lisa. As Joanne is left alone in the wilderness to await her fate, if only she could take the leap out of there, perhaps she'd be free.

The Herald, March 27th 2017

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Thursday, 23 March 2017

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow
Three stars

Business is business at the start of Hugh Hodgart's revival of Shakespeare's sunniest rom-com, as performed by MA Classical and Contemporary Text students at RCS, in partnership with Bard in the Botanics. Love and money are in the air as Theseus and Hippolyta announce their nuptials to the world's press, sealing the deal on an unholy alliance between Athens and Amazonia as they go. As Honey Durruthy's Egius seeks advice on the merry-go-round romance between Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius, Theseus' line to Hermia about austerity and single life becomes even more pointed by its power-dressing context.

While Hermia and Lysander's camping trip to the woods doesn't end well, especially when Hermia's love-sick hippy chick mate Helena is around, the Rude Mechanicals' worker's playtime sees Bottom briefly become Titania's bit of rough. With Isabel Palmstierna's Puck at the centre of such cack-handed mischief-making, the transition from playing Philostrate is akin to some nice but dim intern with ideas above her station whose alter ego goes on a bender at the office party. At the end of the play's first half she even suggests a well-earned tea break.

As three very different communities rub up against each other before going their separate, class-based ways, an even brisker second half is addressed with an impressively light touch by Hodgart's cast of twelve. This is despite minimal carry on between Matthew Miles' Bottom and Lily Cooper's Titania. While Miles still has plenty of fun as the old ham, this becomes Puck's play. As Palmstierna's creations flit between worlds like a rootless social climber, the magic she conjures up en route proves infectious for all.

The Herald, March 24th 2017

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Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Steven Severin – The Vril Harmonies

For almost two decades now, Steven Severin's solo instrumental work has largely kept its own counsel in the shadows. The output of the former co-founder and bass player of Siouxsie and the Banshees has been prodigious, with a dozen albums of dark ambient soundscapes released thus far.

This began in 1998 with Visions, an extended reworking of his soundtrack to Nigel Wingrove's short film, Visions of Ecstasy, almost a decade before. Unreleased until 2012, Wingrove's sensual fantasia inspired by the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila is the only film to have been refused a certificate by the British Board of Film Censors on the grounds of blasphemy.

Since then, Severin has released scores for theatre and film, including the soundtrack for supernatural thriller London Voodoo and Richard Jobson's film, The Purifiers, as well as for one-time Edinburgh Festival Fringe dance performer/director, Shakti. Since Severin himself moved to Edinburgh twelve years ago, he has become even more prolific, with soundtracks to Jean Cocteau's 1930 silent movie Blood of A Poet, and, with his actress wife Arban, collaborations with director Matthew Misory, first on Delphinium: A Childhood Portrait of Derek Jarman, then on Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean.

The first of four download-only new works released over the next month, The Vril Harmonies is a spaced-out instrumental suite that appears to draw inspiration in part from The Coming Race, an 1871 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton which charts the discovery of a superior subterranean master race fuelled by an energy form known as Vril. The book's life-enhancing elixir not only gifted Bovril half its name, but inspired theosophists such as Rudolf Steiner and George Bernard Shaw to buy into its philosophy. More recently, graphic novelist Grant Morrison and readers of the Fortean Times have been similarly fascinated by the power of Vril.

Unsubstantiated claims led some to believe that a secret Vril Society of occultists existed in pre-Nazi Berlin. This may or may not have been governed by a network of female psychic mediums who claimed to have contact with Aryan aliens living in Alpha Cen Tauri using their pony-tailed hair. Either way, the musical result of Severin's sonic explorations is an other-worldly exercise in synthesised hypnosis.

Split into two sections, the first, Black Sun Arcana features four pieces, and the second, Absolute Elsewhere section, two longer meditations. The eight minutes of Black Sun Arcana's opening track, Maria, is key to everything that follows. A sepulchral slow-motion drift around some imaginary cosmos, it references Maria Orsic, the real life Austrian psychic whose luminous visage peers from the album cover, as inscrutably beautiful as a movie starlet. Orsic was de facto leader of an organisation called the Society of Vrilerinnen Women, who were allegedly in cahoots with the aforementioned aliens.

Orsic's partner in such adventures was another medium known only as Sigrun, who gives the album's second track its title. Here the jittering frequencies at times resemble Bebe and Louis Barron's 'electronic tonalities' for director Fred M Wilcox's 1956 mix of sci-fi and Shakespeare, Forbidden Planet, or the end credit sequence of Gerry Anderson's cult live action TV series, U.F.O.

The stuttering low-end transmissions of Haunebo sound like Nazi flying saucers jockeying for position before they go in for the kill, while aether sounds suitably transcendent in intent. Referencing the much-mythologised fifth element, which in Vril lore contains the life-force of the universe, it's as if its repeated synthesised phrases were gathering strength as they go, with layer on layer of some intangible force powering them up to take on the world.

The Absolute Elsewhere section probably isn't referencing Paul Fishman's long lost prog rock project of the same name, although the inspiration of Chariots of the Gods author Erich von Daniken on Fishman's synthesiser-based In Search of Ancient Gods album sounds like it could be a fellow traveller.

The first piece, (Not All Good Comes) From Above, shares pretty much the same title as a track from Swedish post-industrialist, Vagr, who has recorded an entire trilogy inspired by Maria Orsic. Here, however, Severin's deep bass swathes scan around the ether, proceeding with forensic caution before it gives way to Phase Into Light. This swirls into view, increasing velocity as it gathers momentum over its twelve-minute duration before bursting into some twinkly-eyed idyll like a celestial merry-go-round on a trip to the warmer reaches of a hidden universe.

The Vril Harmonies is available to purchase at www.stevenseverin.com, and can also be downloaded at www.stevenseverin.bandcamp.com.

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Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish - Offside

Sabrina Mahfouz wasn't interested in football when she started work on Offside, the play she co-wrote with fellow poet Holly McNish, and which tours to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh next week. Mahfouz didn't really do sport at all, while McNish had been more interested in playing the game than watching it when she was a student, to the extent that she trained as a coach for young people. By the time they dug deep into the history of women's football, which forms the backdrop of the play, they were both very much on the same side.

“The initial idea for the play came from Caroline Bryant, who's the artistic director of Futures Theatre, and who's this massive football fan,” says Mahfouz. “Her daughter plays football, and she was always going on about wanting to make a show about women's football. I wasn't sure if I was the right person to do it, but as soon as I looked into it, and saw all this stuff about how football had been used as a political tool against women's rights, I knew we had to get that story out.”

That story of Offside focuses on two modern day women trying to make the team of their local women's football side. Interspersed with this are flashbacks to 1881 and 1921, years which marked key moments in a largely hidden history of the sport, in which the figures of Carrie Boustead and Lily Parr were key.

Carrie Boustead was a goalkeeper who played for London-based clubs in games in Glasgow, Stirling and Lanarkshire during the 1800s. She was notable for being women's football's first ever black player.

Lily Parr was a professional player with the Preston-based Dick, Kerr and Co team, named after the munitions factory where many of the women on the team worked. Dick, Kerr and Co drew large crowds, including a game at Goodison Park in Liverpool attended by 53,000. Parr scored forty-three goals in her first season, and continued to play after women's football was banned in the UK in 1921. It is here that the history of the sport starts to become really interesting.

“I knew nothing about the F.A. ban beforehand,” says McNish, “but once I started looking into it all it made me really angry. They never said why they did it, and I think there was something really fishy going on. Even before the ban you could see how hard it was for women playing football. In the 1890s you'd get guys running onto the pitch and hassling them, and sometimes the police had to be called. Then the ban happened, and it seemed such an extreme response to it.

“There were other bans as well, like when women were banned from cycling unless they rode side saddle, but with football I think there was a lot of class warfare going on as well, because a lot of the teams were from Scotland and the north of England. To go from 53,000 people watching women's football in Liverpool to women not even being able to go onto the pitch for the next fifty years is pretty shocking.”

Futures Theatre has been putting such issues onstage since the company was founded in 1992 to put women's stories at the centre of the theatrical experience. It was while running a series of poetry workshops with the company that Mahfouz became involved in Offside, with McNish co-opted to bring some of her footballing expertise on board. As female poets who both started out on the performance circuit, it was an inspired pairing.

“I wanted to get the feeling of football's physicality into the writing,” says Mahfouz, “and Hollie's experience of football had a lot of influence on that. Hollie lives in Cambridge and I'm in London, so we'd go back and forth sending each other stuff as we wrote it line by line, and if it became clear that one of us was more interested in writing a specific part of the play, we;'d go away and do it, and then edit it between us.”

Mahfouz has worked extensively in theatre, with solo pieces Dry Ice and One Hour Only both premiering at the Underbelly as part of Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Her short piece, Clean, was seen at the Traverse Theatre as part of its Herald Angel-winning Breakfast Plays season, and an expanded version was later seen at Oran Mor in Glasgow before touring to New York. Mahfouz's next play, Chef, was also seen in Edinburgh, and her more recent work has been produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain and Paines Plough. In sharp contrast, Offside is McNish's first foray into theatre.

“It's been quite interesting for me,” she says, “because I've only been to the theatre a few times, so hearing someone else reading my words has been really nice. It's also made me more interested in writing for TV and film. I've always said no to TV so far, but I don't want to leave the character of Lily Parr. I've written loads more poems about her that aren't in the play, and I think she's such an amazing person to do what she did, and for women's football to be banned the way it was had a really negative effect on women's rights.

“The reason I started playing football was because there was a less posh crowd playing it, and I started enjoying it because of its universality. Football is one of the only sports I've played in different countries, and it breaks language barriers in the way music and dancing does. It's not like I watch it or anything, and I can't be bothered to follow a team, but it makes me frustrated that football is still seen as such a male sport, and I think it's a shame that girls get left out of that culture of having a kick-about with their mates.”

As part of her research for Offside, Mahfouz went to watch a few games in which women's teams took part.

“They were really fun,” she says, “and it really helped with the physicalisation again. Looking at the stories of Carrie Boustead and Lily Parr really showed me how whitewashed these things are, and I think it's important to make a bit of noise about these women who were doing all these things.”

As McNish points out, “Offside isn't just a play for people who like football. I hope the people who come to see it will realise what a big thing it is that females are still playing football today. We can get a bit blasé and think that things have become easy, but I think it's important that we remind ourselves about how hard it was for women back then.”

Mahfouz agrees.

“I'd just like people to have a deeper appreciation of the legacy of football, and women's involvement in the game and the struggles they had to face,” she says. “Women who want to dedicate their life to football still have more of a hard time than they do in any other sport, and that struggle continues today.”

Offside, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 30-April 1.
www.traverse.co.uk
www.futurestheatre.co.uk

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Monday, 20 March 2017

Between poles and tides

Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh until May 6th
Three stars

In difficult times, getting back to nature is one solution, as demonstrated in some of the works on show in this group-based exhibition of new acquisitions from the University of Edinburgh art collection. Things aren't always as they seem, however, in the series of paintings, video, publications and sound-based works, as the leopard's face looking out from Zane (2013), Isobel Turley's two-second video loop of this most endangered of species suggests. Filmed in Edinburgh Zoo, Zane's steely gaze may suggest he is guarding the other exhibits, when in fact he has been immortalised in another, more Sisyphean form of captivity. The voice-over of another video, Daisy Lafarge's Not For Gain (2016) hints at an even more invidious form of social control.

The row of wall-clocks in Katie Paterson's Timepieces (Solar System) (2014) points to the global interplay between such things, while her Paterson's Future Library (2014-2114) bends time and space even more. With nature and revolution coalescing in three pieces by Ian Hamilton Finlay, a work's chief protagonists spookily rubbed out in Jonathan Owen's Eraser Drawings (2014-16) and the University's digital collection repurposed in Fabienne Hess' Zebras, Blanks and Blobs (2017), this cross-generational showcase points to a quiet concern for worlds beyond the gallery's borders.

The List, March 2017

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Bill Drummond, Johny Brown and The Cherry Blossom Quartet

Bill Drummond is full of surprises. Just ask Johny Brown, poet, playwright and for three decades the soothsaying frontman of Band of Holy Joy, whose state-of-the-nation musical addresses have become increasingly urgent dispatches from austerity Britain. When Drummond handed Brown a set of plays that he'd written and asked him if he thought he might be able to do anything with them, it was a gesture that came out of the blue.

The result of this is The Cherry Blossom Quartet, a five-night series of radio broadcasts of the plays, adapted by Brown and performed live with accompanying soundscapes on community-based online art radio station, Resonance FM. With a cast that features the likes of Joe Cushley and Sukie Smith, Drummond will be given voice by actor, activist and long term collaborator of Brown's, Tam Dean Burn.

Bill's never written a play before,” says Brown, “but he started going to watch all these plays at the Arcola Theatre in London close to where he lives in Stoke Newington. He started going every night, and I think he saw some really bad ones, and as he's getting older I think he wants to do something in theatre.”

After more than forty years of making a spectacle of himself, such a move into play-writing was probably inevitable. Pretty much everything Drummond has done, after all, has had a sense of theatre about it, from his travails through the music business with Zoo Records and the KLF to his much mythologised activities in the art world as one half of the K Foundation.

More recent artistic actions includes The 17, a rolling choir made up of volunteers drafted in to follow Drummond's word-based scores; and The 25 Paintings World Tour, which began in 2014 under Spaghetti Junction, where Drummond also plans to end it in 2025. All of Drummond's past adventures have been documented in wilfully individualistic essays, many of which are contained in his books, 45 and The 17.

Future events include an appearance at Neu! Reekie!, the Edinburgh-based multi-arts mash-up in April, and will take part in Where Are We Now?, Neu! Reekie!'s weekend festival that forms part of Hull's year as UK City of Culture in June. Here, Drummond will set himself up as a shoeshine boy, cleaning people's shoes while asking them to share their darkest secrets.

There is also 2023 – A Trilogy, a still-to-be defined series of events instigated by the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, and set to take place in some form in Liverpool between August 23rd and 27th this year. This has been leaked through a series of posters that say everything and nothing about what may or may not happen. In terms of dramatic promise, it's a tantalising cliffhanger loaded with possibilities.

The Cherry Blossom Quartet is something else again. The four plays - Bill Drummond is Dead, To the Shores of Lake Placid, Repossessed and Between Heaven and Helsinki – are broken up by a mid-week interlude, Theatre and Me.

All of the plays are about Bill's life,” says Brown. “They're an extension of his various artworks, and talk about his work and ((his)) personal life as well as what's going on in the world just now, which Bill is really passionate about. He thought they were impossible to put on, but I thought I'd like to have a crack at them.”

Given that the first play, Bill Drummond is Dead, is a dialogue-free affair which features Drummond laid out on a mortuary slab wearing a Liverpool Football Club shirt, this sounds like quite a feat.

We've turned the stage directions into a poem,” says Brown. “It's about the price of art and the price of life and death.”

To the Shores of Lake Placid winds back to Drummond's Liverpool days, from playing in Big in Japan with the likes of Ian Broudie and Holly Johnson to releasing the debut records by Echo and the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes, who Drummond also co-managed.

It's all about Zoo, and has a sixty-two year old Bill arguing with a twenty-eight year old Bill about the value of a 7” single as an art-form. Bill talks a lot about how Zoo was more than just a record label, and how it was a play, and the stage set was the office.”

This is a neat pre-cursor to Theatre and Me, in which Drummond talks about his early days working with theatrical maverick Ken Campbell and his Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, based in the upstairs room of a cafe in Matthew Street, then Liverpool's underground artistic hub.

Brown describes the next play, Repossessed, as “a romp,” involving Drummond's ex wife and three film-makers who he attempts to pitch ideas to, but who only want to talk about the KLF. One suspects this is an experience Drummond has had to face many times.

The final play, Between Heaven and Helsinki, is the one Brown calls “the killer,” and is based on the rise and fall of Kristina Bruuk, the imaginary singer invented by Drummond and Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction's Mark Manning for their book, Bad Wisdom. In their epic voyage to the top of the world, the pair created a record label, Kalevala, and released six singles by make-believe bands, with Bruuk – described as 'the Nico of the north-lands' – contributing guest vocals to a record by fictional all-female Finnish quartet, Dracula's Daughter. The play that has come out of all this is something of a rock and roll tragedy.

The character took on a life of her own,” explains Brown, “and in the play she tells her life story of how she goes from Helsinki to London, before ending up back in Helsinki again.”

Anyone familiar with Drummond's written work will recognise the roots of some of the material, as well as the titles. Bill Drummond is Dead was a song recorded by Teardrop Explodes' singer Julian Cope in response to Drummond's song, Julian Cope is Dead, while Repossessed is the title of Cope's second volume of his own autobiographical musings. To the Shores of Lake Placid was the title of a 1982 compilation album of rare and previously unreleased material put out by Zoo.

In this respect, The Cherry Blossom Quartet can arguably be seen as Drummond's latest piece of auto-biographical myth-making which, despite his seeming loathing of nostalgia, is taking an increasingly reflective tone. This can be seen especially in his recent writings, including an essay in response to the death of Dead or Alive singer and Liverpool post-punk peer Pete Burns.

What started off as a reluctant elegy expanded into a glorious pop cultural epic which not only validated Drummond's heroic anti-career over the last forty years as well as being an attempt to make some kind of sense of it all. So it goes too, it seems, with his plays.

Bill's still full of life,” says Brown, “and he bounces around Stoke Newington like he's on fire, but there's a definite awareness of his own mortality that comes through in all the plays.”

The Cherry Blossom Quartet is penned under the name Tenzing Scott Brown, the Boy's Own style nom de plume sometimes used by Drummond. These have included a spoken-word vocal to a track by Skyray, the ambient project of Wild Swans mainstay and original Teardrop Explodes keyboardist Paul Simpson. A Tenzing Scott Brown Twitter account features a profile picture of Drummond sporting shades and a brightly bobbed orange wig. Despite a declaration in the account's sole tweet that there would be one tweet a day for 365 days inspired by feminist literature, the account has remained apparently untouched since 2011.

Each play in The Cherry Blossom Quartet will feature original soundscapes by Rothko, Ghost Mind, Farmer Glitch, Psychological Strategy Boards and James Stephen Finn. Rather than mere soundtracks, the music will be integral components of each play. This is in keeping with Brown's original work outwith Band of Holy Joy, both on radio and onstage.

On Resonance FM, Brown and Burn collaborated on a series of plays, including a dog's eye view of the late Associates singer Billy Mackenzie as related by one of his beloved pet whippets. Since then, Brown and fellow Band of Holy Joy member Inga Tillere have initiated Radio Joy, an impressionistic pirate radio compendium of words and music later collected in the book, Field Notes. More recently, Brown has been the driving force behind Bad Punk, a similarly styled weekly late night programme that will also produce and present The Cherry Blossom Quartet.

In theatre, Brown brought his play, William Burroughs Caught in Possession of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, to the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow. This epic fantasia saw Burn play the iconic author of The Naked Lunch as the captain of a ship whose crew included New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders, experimental novelist Kathy Acker and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was a previous Brown/Burn collaboration, however, which first sired the creative relationship with Drummond.

That was a play called Cruel Britannia,” says Brown. “It was a Greek myth transplanted to the Blair years and was an absolute romp. We did it at the Scala in London, and we approached Bill with a view to him designing the stage set. He met us, and asked us what made us think he would do it. He said he wanted nothing to do with the play and nothing to do with theatre. Then he read the script, loved it and ended up doing it. It was 1999, and I think the play touched on a lot of things in Bill's life at that time, and I don't think he ever forgot it. When he started going to see plays at the Arcola which he thought were shite but were being hailed as great pieces of theatre, I think he thought of Cruel Britannia, and wondered why that never had the same sort of acclaim. ”

Drummond's unpublicised work on Cruel Britannia was possibly his first stage design since his work on Illuminatus!, Ken Campbell's nine-hour staging of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's sprawling counter-cultural science-fiction conspiracy theory trilogy of novels produced by the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool in 1976.

Drummond's design was praised extensively in theatre critic Michael Coveney's biography of Campbell, The Great Caper, and if he had carried on in a more relatively orthodox career path, Drummond might have had a glittering future as a stage designer. While Illuminatus! went on to open the National Theatre's Cottesloe space on London's South Bank, as Drummond has himself documented, he left the rehearsal room to get some Araldite, and never went back.

Given The Cherry Blossom Quartet's tenure on Resonance FM, it's possibly no coincidence that several years before his death Campbell and actor Christopher Fairbank read and performed the novel of Illuminatus in full in a series of marathon live broadcasts on the station. It is this fearless spirit that both Brown and Drummond have brought into The Cherry Blossom Quartet.

There's no safety net,” says Brown. “We're doing it live, and we're not even rehearsing it beforehand. Inga's documenting it, and it'll go in the Resonance archive, and once it's done it's done.”

If and when The Cherry Blossom Quartet is staged in the theatre, given the track record of all involved, it's likely to be done in a typically punk DIY manner. Brown has ambitions to see the plays staged at the Star and Shadow venue in Newcastle.

It's the logical next step," he says. "For me and Tam, these plays are exactly the sort of work we want to do. To be given scripts like this by Bill, it's a godsend.”

The Cherry Blossom Quartet is performed live on Resonance FM from March 20th-24th, with a different play each night from 8pm.
www.resonancefm.com


Product, March 2017


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Elvis Costello

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Five stars

"I never thought I'd have to sing this again," says Elvis Costello before the final song of a two and a half hour set that makes up the very personal rummage through his back pages that is his solo Detour show. By this time he's showed us snaps from a family album that includes footage of his dad, big band crooner Ross McManus, after introducing the evening with videos of his own career on a giant mock-up of a 1960s TV set. He's entered with a shimmy and moved from acoustic guitar to electric with a stint at the piano in between.

One minute Costello is a showbiz raconteur cracking jokes, the next he's playing a ferocious version of Watching the Detectives while bathed in a moody green light as retro-styled pulp fiction posters flash up behind him. There is a funereal piano-led version of his Falklands War elegy, Shipbuilding, and an unamplified Alison. Following a blistering take on Oliver's Army against an image of a World War One army band just like the one his grand-dad was in, Costello holds his guitar aloft like a weapon.

There are new songs from a forthcoming musical about the power of TV to create demagogues, followed by the heartbreak of Indoor Fireworks and a lovely She. But when Costello ends the night with a story of visiting an underfunded hospital to see his 90 year old mum before singing Tramp the Dirt Down, the renewed relevance of the song he wrote in response to Margaret Thatcher is electrifying. In this way, as Costello takes stock of his now classic canon, he reinvents it in a way that reinvigorates it with every hearing.

The Herald, March 20th 2017

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Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Hay Fever

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

There is a moment in-between the second and third acts of Dominic Hill's new production of Noel Coward's 1920s comedy when the flapping stops. That moment belongs to Clara, the life-long dresser and some-time servant to the divine Judith Bliss, actress, matriarch and all-round self-styled legend. As played by Myra McFadyen with a beetling dolefulness, Clara's red-draped routine both confirms and subverts the heightened artifice of everything she is otherwise sidelined from. In this way, she also becomes the melancholy conscience of a play in which the bohemian Bliss family are so desperate to have a good time that even pleasure becomes a struggle.

Coward's conceit of having the Bliss clan so individually self-absorbed that they each invite a weekend guest allows them to be adored by those who become both spectators and bit players in Judith and co's never-ending soap opera. It isn't just Susan Wooldridge's studiedly polished Judith who hams it up in this co-production between the Lyceum and the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, as Benny Baxter-Young's novelist patriarch David and their offspring Sorel and Simon also embark on assorted merry dances en route to potential consummation of their ardours.

Body language is everything here, as characters drape themselves over and around each other on Tom Piper's exquisitely exposed set, the wooden staircase of which was made for grand entrances. The cut and thrust between Rosemary Boyle's Sorel and Hywel Simons' stiff-backed Richard are particularly priceless, as is the dismissal of Charlie Archer's puppy-like Simon by Pauline Knowles' ice-cool Myra. Leaving aside the accidental moment in which a piece of unruly furniture threatens to upstage everyone, this is the most human of comedies that basks in its subjects own attention-seeking frailty with deceptively frothy abandon.

The Herald, March 16th 2017

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Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Rufus Norris - My Country: A Work in Progress

Just before Christmas, Rufus Norris spent a week in Fife listening to the 300 hours of interviews that had been recorded for My Country: A Work in Progress, the post-Brexit state of the nations verbatim show he was developing with the National Theatre of Great Britain. It was during this seasonal sabbatical that the enormity of the show, which arrives at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow next week, hit home.

As artistic director of the NToGB, Norris is the head of an institution housed on London's South Bank, and which arguably goes some way to defining the public face of a liberal middle-class elite. Now here he was, listening intently to the voices of those across the length and breadth of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales who may not have ever graced that institution's brutalist portals. Hearing these people's words while holed up in a place where some of the interviewees aged between nine and ninety-seven might well reside, and with a rather quainter kind of metropolis just across the Forth Bridge, lent clarity and meaning to Norris' quest. Not least because the majority of those who make up Scotland's electorate who bothered to vote in the EU referendum were in favour of remaining.

Since then, Norris has been working with the UK's Glasgow-born Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and seven actors to knit together a script that combines the interviews - conducted in partnership with seven other organisations across the UK's nations and regions including the Citz - with political speeches. Combined, the play presents an unsentimental portrait of life in today's post-Brexit limbo, where all the frustrations that influenced the vote may or may not have come home to roost.

“It's a sorrowful love poem to Britain,” says Norris of a script that was only pulled together a week prior to its London opening before it heads out on a tour of its associate venues. “For something like that to emerge from the experience is quite surprising, and in some ways it's quite a simple play, in that it's not all bells and whistles. For the actors, however, it's a huge challenge, because these people never talk with each other.”

This too is a symbol of the sort of divisiveness that exists across Britain's nations and regions that took what Norris acknowledges as “a political bubble that exists within the M25” even more by surprise. Since the vote, some of those in favour of leaving the EU and who are effectively on the winning side have been left as disillusioned and as disenfranchised as those who voted remain. It is this in part that prompted Norris to attempt to give them voice by way of My Country.

“The political fallout that came after the result, and the vitriol that followed exposed the division that had maybe been hidden up until that point,” says Norris. “Following on so soon after the Scottish referendum was interesting, because that seemed like a fairly intelligent debate, and people on the whole seemed to be voting from an informed point of view, but Brexit was different. Brexit exposed the need for the metropolitan centre not to throw stones, but to shut up and listen for a change.”

While there were plenty of stones thrown from all sides during the Scottish independence referendum, Norris' point about very localised divides still stands. How this can be transformed into a piece of theatre without taking sides is something else again.

“We had a different script every day,” says Norris. “Sometimes it was completely new. That script came out of interviews done by eight or nine gatherers, who might do about twenty interviews in each area. The gatherers were very passionate about the material they brought back, and sometimes felt reticent about handing over their material to us in case all we might come up with was a liberal bubble, creature comforts point of view. Out of that we had a combination of me trying to structure things, and Carol Ann bringing in a poetry and a human music drawn from a cast who'd developed this deeper knowledge of what they were saying from one area or another because they were from there.”

With Scots actor Stuart McQuarrie playing Caledonia in a play in which Britannia also inevitably appears, My Country sounds doubly pertinent. With Article 50 looking likely to be invoked at Westminster to start the wheels turning to implement Brexit, yesterday's announcement that the Scottish Government will seek a second Scottish independence referendum has changed things again.

“Everyone we spoke to in Scotland about Brexit talked about it in relation to the Scottish referendum,” says Norris, “and there was a lot of anger there. If they'd known what was going to happen with Brexit then they might not have voted the way they did. Scottish people we spoke to on the whole were better informed than in some other areas. There was a much more politicised environment, and people were much more engaged with notions of nationhood and community. Then you listen to the interviews we did in Derry-Londonderry, and notions of nationhood move onto a totally different level. But in terms of breaking out of a liberal bubble, the majority of people in the UK who voted were for leave, and the majority of the people in the play are pro-leave as well.

Despite this, things may not be as clear cut as they seem.

“There are things everyone agreed on,” says Norris, “and what became clear is that everyone's opinions and experiences were rooted in where they live. So someone who's from a farming community will have a completely different experience to someone living in a city. When they talked about things that didn't directly connect with them, they tended to speak in soundbites, and which came from the commentary and the misinformation from both sides. As soon as people started talking about something from their own experience, it became something that was much more real.”

The choice of My Country's sub-title of A Work in Progress was deliberate.

“You know you're never going to get there,” says Norris, “and that's as true of making a piece of theatre in this way as it is of whatever happens next in the country. Theresa May has said she's going to see Brexit through, but the devil of course comes in the detail, and our show is an exercise in listening.

“On the one hand, taking Brexit forward appears to be obeying the population's choice, but on another, it's not going any deeper than that. For most people I suspect Brexit isn't about exiting Europe. It's about more fundamental things that people are unhappy about, and which are about people's communities falling apart. At the moment, nine months after the vote, we've still not heard anything about how those communities need to be prioritised on a deeper level. Everyone we spoke to talked about the importance of the NHS and the importance of integrating immigrants who are already here, but that still hasn't been looked at yet. It's important that the voices that are heard in My Country are listened to, whatever happens next.”

My Country: A Work in Progress, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, March 28-April 1; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, May 11-13.
www.citz.co.uk
www.traverse.co.uk



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Monday, 13 March 2017

God of Carnage

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

Two kids fall-out because one won't let the other be in their gang. The gang-leader ends up with their two front teeth being knocked out for his pains. By rights, that should be the end of such rough and tumble. In Christopher Hampton's English language translation of French writer Yasmina Reza's play, however, it prompts a meeting of the two boys' parents to act as mediators of some kind of unspoken settlement. As with that other most painful of plays, Abigail's Party, the incident that kick-starts Reza's play happens off-stage, as an eruption of social savagery destroys any pretence at politesse. Only Erik Satie's quietest of revolutions playing on the stereo keeps calm.

Gareth Nicholls' production starts off well-behaved enough, as Annette and her lawyer husband Alain endure the niceties of the more seemingly liberal Veronique and Michel in their too-perfect white home. The soft play area is a dead giveaway of how boarders are repelled in Karen Tennent's design, as it acts as both moat and escape route while everyone collapses into fits of barely suppressed unhappiness. This is expressed with increasingly manic intent by the two couples, played over seventy minutes duration by Colin McCredie and Anita Vettesse as Michel and Veronique, with Richard Conlon and Lorraine McIntosh as Alain and Annette.

Reza's play may be almost a decade old, but in its up-close dissection of human frailty, it channels similar extremes to a more recent wave of dark dramas dressed up as sit-coms such as Fleabag and Catastrophe. This in itself points to how mainstream comic writing has grown up in its willingness to focus so unflinchingly on such discomforting behaviour. I blame the parents.


The Herald, March 13th 2017

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Henry IV

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow
Three stars

If Shakespeare's plays were the blockbusters of their day, the bard wasn't shy of churning out a sequel if the mood took him. So it goes with the middle two plays of his Tudor tetralogy, which focus on the eventual succession of young Prince Hal, who'd rather slum it having bantz with Falstaff and the boys down at their local than get involved with the assorted power plays going on at his dad's court.

Gordon Barr's adaptation of both plays enables audiences to digest his production in one sitting. Performed by students of the RCS' MA Classical and Contemporary Text course in partnership with Barr's Bard in the Botanics operation, the weight of Shakespeare's text is retained without losing any of the story's alternating light and shade. So while King Henry sits regally at one end of the Chandler Studio's performing area at the play's start, the bare floor before him becomes an entire country that is little more than Prince Hal's playground.

As played by Charlie Clee, there is method in Hal's madness here, so his audience-baiting roustabouts with Caitilin McCoy's Falstaff become a knowingly exploitative rites of passage. With the second half's battle scenes punctuated by Samuel Pashby's galloping score, as the penny finally drops regarding the relationship between power and responsibility, this time Hal's sparring with Jordan Edgington's Hotspur is personal.

When Hal finally takes the throne, having turned his back on the clowns and jokers who shaped him, Clee makes him a reluctant king. The weight of everything ahead hangs heavy on his shoulders, but maybe not as heavy as everything he's left behind.


The Herald, March 13th 2017

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Sunday, 12 March 2017

Blue Orchids – Skull Jam (Tiny Global Productions)

When Martin Bramah left The Fall in 1979 to form Blue Orchids, it set in motion a musical lineage that has run parallel with fellow Fall co-founder Mark E Smith's bloody-minded forty-year assault on culture. History will decide whether the latter is either a masterpiece of social engineering or else the extended public self-destruction of a terminal drunk.

While ex Fall guitarist Marc Riley and now Brix Smith-Start have come to renewed prominence playing records on the radio, the off-shoot acts spawned by Smith's army have received less attention than they deserve. Now that Smith-Start has attempted to reclaim her past with early eighties Fall rhythm section Steve and Paul Hanley and push it towards a future with less baggage as Brix and The Extricated, all that might be about to change.

This is good news for Bramah, whose current incarnation of Blue Orchids is having something of a renaissance, as this new four-track EP confirms. Partly recorded at the same time as 2016's The Once and Future Thing album and released on 10” vinyl, there's a relentless and unreconstructed sense of evangelical urgency and purpose to the record.

As with Bramah's first band, Blue Orchids tripped out of a messier side of Manchester, and there was something ever so slightly hippified about them. This was never mellow or laid-back in its appropriation of the sixties, but sounded more uptight. Blue Orchids still reeked of free festivals, but any indulgences were tempered by a gruffer, more direct form of sooth-saying. Their counter-culture was forged, not by getting their heads together in the country, but in inner-city squats.

So it goes here with the EP's title track, which thunders in sounding like Volunteers era Jefferson Airplane if they'd hung out in a Greater Manchester recreation ground rather than Woodstock and Monterey. Skull Jam proceeds to kick out the, er, jams, with a fierce call to arms that evangelises a pounding form of psychic revolution before finding a potato chip that looks like the baby Jesus. Hanging Man follows up with an intense seven minute epic driven by chunky bass and wiggy organ sound-tracking an archaic purging as it batters its demons into submission.

The two tracks recorded after the Once and Future Thing sessions see former A Witness bassist Vince Hunt taking over from Chris Hutton to join drummer Chris Connolly and keyboardist John Paul Moran. The first is a telling cover of Atomic Rooster's unlikely 1971 hit, The Devil's Answer, a school disco head-banger that copped its riff from a million freak-beat thrashers , and is here fleshed out by extra crunchy guitar and 96 Tears organ. Bramah sings over all this like his life depended on it.

Finally, trainspotters can delight in Work Before The Moon Falls, a mash-up of sorts that sees Bramah rummaging through his back-pages to splice together second Blue Orchids single, Work, and Before the Moon Falls. The latter was co-written with Mark E Smith before the split, and appeared in a different form on the Fall's second, post-Bramah album, Dragnet, while Bramah channelled his original tune into Work.

Combined, this makes for something less psychedelically-inclined than the former, and less spindly than the latter. In their place is bounce and drive aplenty, and the recognisable gear shift into more menacing waters towards the end as a crazed Bramah urges us to 'use the power'. Which power isn't clear, but what sounds like a Manchester chain gang looks set to unleash its darkest forces. It's quite a trip.

Product, March 2017

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Wednesday, 8 March 2017

La Cage Aux Folles

The Playhouse, Edinburgh
Three stars

The all-male chorus line that opens this touring revival of the musical that arguably took drag culture into the mainstream look like a troupe of high-kicking angels as they sashay in formation down the glitzy looking steps of the French night-club that gives composer Jerry Herman and writer Harvey Fierstein's creation its title. Drawn from a 1973 play by Jean Poiret and adapted for the screen five years later, Herman and Fierstein's musical take on Poiret's story hit the big time just as AIDS was making its deadly presence felt.

Something of a sleeper hit because of that, Herman and Fierstein's tale about club-owning Georges and star diva Albin, a long-term gay couple who are forced to jump through social hoops to appear 'normal' to their son's prospective in-laws is both a high-camp farce and accidental show of strength. This loose-knit plot is also the best excuse to gift the world one of the great gay anthems in I Am What I Am.

Martin Connor's glam-looking production allows John Partridge to storm the stage in full diva mode as Albin. His extended first half routine with the audience is a particular treat, even if he seems to have stepped out of the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club rather than French cafe society. Adrian Zmed makes the perfect foil as Georges, and Marti Webb provides strong support as Jacqueline. In a show that's about standing up to intolerance while reserving the right to be different, it's a flashy, trashy, loud and – eventually – proud affair. Despite its period roots, it remains a fearless show of defiance in an ignorant world.

The Herald, March 9th 2017

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E. Bias – The Emmanuel Bias EP (Kick And Clap / Because Music) / AMOR – Paradise / In Love An Arc (Night School Records)

The spirit of nightclubs past, present and future hangs joyously over these two releases by different permutations of a Glasgow underground supergroup steeped in the city's DIY art/music interface. Both are limited edition 12” vinyl releases packaged in sleeves that resemble old-school DJ-friendly platters as flash as they are cheesy. Both too are as myth-makingly conceptual as you can get.

The first finds electronicist and Turner Prize-nominated artist Luke Fowler, Franz Ferdinand drummer Paul Thomson and vocalist/composer Richard Youngs joining forces for six slices of insular techno. These pieces are seemingly inspired by allegedly long-lost Italian synthesiser factory worker turned composer/performer, Emmanuel Maggi. The second finds the trio augmenting the line-up with bassist Michael Francis Duch as they morph into AMOR to produce a more organic stew of post-punk avant-disco that could have been excavated from circa 1979 Ladbroke Grove.

Key to both records is Richard Youngs' mantra-like vocal, which for anyone well versed with any of his solo a capella performances sounds rooted more in sixteenth century English madrigals than 1980s proto House. Given the reliance of both on repetition, it makes much more sense than you might initially expect.

As E. Bias, the trio work with a wilfully-limited palette. The opening No Way Back sets a tone of low-end synth-squelch and electronic claps pulsing Youngs' keening voice. Each repeated verse of haiku-like lyrics is punctuated by a Casio organ before a percussive wig-out takes it to climax.

On Emergency, Youngs seems to channel Metal Box era John Lydon while an urgent piano chord sounds the alarm. Landfill finds rhythms dropping in from all sides in a shadowy set-piece, which, like Share adds swathes of percussive patterns over Youngs' melancholy vocal. Ride ups the BPM slightly by throwing Steve Reich-like shapes into the mix.

Finally, Pleasure embraces the contradictions of its title, with Youngs sounding almost mournful over a piano that wouldn't be out of place on a Moby record, before a sepulchral keyboard brings the song to a delicious end. If there's a bona fide club hit on the record, this is it.

As AMOR, the addition of Duch is crucial to a looser sound that spreads out over two thirteen-minute sides. Paradise begins with a thump, a shuffle and Duch's double bass signalling some potential spiritual jazz moves before a piano chord pounds in like it was salvaged from The Red Crayola's Rough Trade era feminist funk anthem, Born in Flames. As with the E.Bias EP, repetition counts for everything. Here, however, it's as if the doors have been kicked open and everybody's taken a deep breath before leaping into an infinitely-brighter world.

Heard immediately after the E.Bias record, Paradise sees Youngs on a mission as he leads the rest of the band on a march to somewhere beyond pleasure, and beyond Pleasure. Musically, Paradise makes for a melting pot of raw rhythm with added synth squiggles. Vocally, Youngs sounds evangelical and possessed with the clarion-calling vigour of Camberwell Now period Charles Hayward.

In Love An Arc is even more eclectic, as it opens with Jane Sayers' scraped violin, which again leans towards free improv territory before it slowly gets overtaken by a bass and piano-led groove. When Youngs' vocal comes in, it's with a pure and instinctive force that drives the rest of the band in a way that makes you yearn to hear it played live.

On one level, both records are meticulously-observed constructions that come from the loving perspective of fan-boys high on Liquid Liquid and Arthur Russell. On another, they transcend their influences to reinvigorate them with a retro-future state of nowness that lives in its own very special moment.

As In Love An Arc careers home into a percussive eruption before pitter-pattering into the distance, it's clear E.Bias and AMOR are two sides of the same dancefloor. Where one internalises the experience, the other is a thing of unfettered joy. Both should be embraced.

Product, March 2017


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Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Syd Shelton - Photographing Rock Against Racism

When Syd Shelton arrived back in London in 1976 after four years working as a photo-journalist in Australia, it was to a city and a country in the thick of change. Margaret Thatcher's regime as UK Prime Minister may have been three years away, but the seeds of her ascension were already being sewn. Mass unemployment was biting away at working class society, and a rising right wing populism had demonised ethnic communities ever since Tory MP Enoch Powell had made his notorious anti immigration 'rivers of blood' speech in 1968. A disaffected youth was already starting to stir with a rising punk culture which was casting aside the old guard of bloated rock stars with a year zero approach that craved something faster, louder and more abrasive.

Battle lines were drawn when a drunken Eric Clapton ranted his support for Powell to an audience in multi-racial Birmingham during August 1976. Clapton's guitar playing had been inspired by the blues greats, and he had scored a chart hit with a cover of Bob Marley's song, I Shot the Sheriff. Neither of these stopped him encouraging the audience to vote for Powell to prevent Britain from becoming a “black colony”, and that Britain should “get the foreigners out, get the wogs out, get the coons out.” Nor did it stop Clapton from repeatedly shouting “Keep Britain White,” the slogan of the National Front, then Britain's foremost extreme right wing political party.

Out of the appalled response to Clapton's comments was born Rock Against Racism, a loose-knit collective who launched a campaign to oppose the rise of racist attacks and white nationalism through a series of large-scale open-air carnivals in London, Manchester and elsewhere. Smaller gigs proliferated around the country in a way that brought together the nascent strains of punk and reggae, while RAR's fanzine, Temporary Hoarding, helped spread the word.

Having met RAR co-founder and fellow photographer Red Saunders, Shelton found himself on the front-line of a movement which for a while at least helped shift a nation's consciousness and unite various youth cultures through the power of music. This can currently be seen in Rock Against Racism – Photographs by Syd Shelton, a major exhibition of Shelton's work currently running at Street Level in Glasgow. It's there in images of artists such as Elvis Costello and Jimmy Pursey onstage at RAR's open air carnivals as much as it is in the pictures of black youths watching the Specials in 1981. Both evoke an energy drawn from a particular moment in time when political engagement and artistic expression went hand in multi-racial hand.

“You see things in a different way now,” says Shelton. “The clothes people are wearing aren't outrageous in any way. The bunch of black lads at the Specials gig in Leeds are all wearing Ben Sherman shirts and sta-prest trousers, and they've picked up this whole style of the Rude Boys, which had been taken up by skinheads and then taken back by this new generation of Rude Boys that came up through Two Tone. When you make the edit of all that now, because you've got more distance you access things in a different way.”

Versions of Shelton's exhibition have been doing the rounds for several years prior to its current Glasgow run, ever since curator, writer and academic on black British visual culture Carol Tulloch – who also happens to be Shelton's wife – was offered the opportunity to curate an exhibition of her choice.

“The history of photography is one of archives in drawers waiting for cultural agencies to rediscover them,” says Shelton. “Carol persuaded me to to go through this considerable archive of photographs and memorabilia, and it's been travelling around on and off since 2008.”

Over five years between 1976 and 1981, Shelton's camera captured many of RAR's defining moments. The earliest of these came in spring 1978, when 100,000 people marched from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in Hackney behind a lorry on which reggae band Misty in Roots played. Once in Hackney, the crowd watched The Clash headline a bill that included Steel Pulse, X-Ray Spex, The Ruts, Sham 69, Generation X and the Tom Robinson Band. A second carnival at Brockwell Park in Brixton later in the year featured Aswad, Misty in Roots and Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

“We didn't have to beg anyone,” says Shelton. “Everyone wanted to do it. We had a great deal of luck in that respect. It was a very exciting time in our lives.”

Many RAR events were done in tandem with the Anti Nazi League, set up in 1975 by the Socialist Workers Party.

“I don't think the ANL really got Rock Against Racism,” says Shelton. “They provided help and finance, but I remember when we did the first Carnival, they thought we'd get 20,000 people coming along, and that we could have all the bands playing on a flat-bed truck. We did have flat-bed trucks, which Misty in Roots played on during the march, but when we got to Victoria Park, rather than there being 20,000 people, there was more like 100,000.

“I don't want to put the Anti Nazi League down, but they had a different agenda. I think they thought Rock Against Racism was the cultural wing of the ANL, but we didn't see it like that.”

For those plugged in to what was happening, the black RAR star that was the movement's logo was ubiquitous. It could be worn as a badge of honour on a punky lapel as much as it could be seen emblazoned on the sleeve-notes of the Tom Robinson Band's 1978 debut album, Power in the Darkness, which included RAR's founding declaration. In the north-west of England, regional TV presenter Dick Witts, who also played in Manchester band The passage and would go on to run the Camden Festival, wore a Rock Against Racism t-shirt while presenting Granada TV's arts magazine programme, What's On?

At around the same time thirty-six miles down the M6, Liverpool hosted a mini carnival in September 1978 at the city's Walton Hall Park. While no big names played, a local band bill was headlined by Ded Byrds, who featured future Culture Club drummer Jon Moss and guitarist Wayne Hussey, later of the Sisters of Mercy and the Mission. Also on the bill were reggae band Kili Kuri, blues veterans 29th and Dearborn, the Nancy Boys and the Spivs. Radical fringe theatre troupes the Belt and Braves Theatre company and the Sadista Sisters were also in attendance.

As a curious fourteen year old, it was also my first experience of live music, although the spectacle beyond counted just as much. Stalls sold strange smelling food, posters and flyers for the London carnival were free and there was the ubiquitous black star RAR badges too. A similar event was organised the following year. With the new Conservative government just installed, Merseyside Rocking Against Racism '79 took place at Princes Park, in the far more culturally diverse Liverpool 8 district, where two years later inner-city riots would prompt the first use of CS Gas on mainland Britain.

As Shelton points out, however, neither his archive or the exhibition make any claims to be a definitive history of the Rock Against Racism era.

“It's more an auto-biographical exhibition of my involvement in it,” he says, “and there are big gaps there because of things I didn't go to. There are no pictures of Scotland, for instance, even though Rock Against Racism had a huge following there. That was evident at the big carnival in Victoria Park, when forty-two coach-loads came down from Scotland.”

To fill in the gaps, accompanying Shelton's images will be Fragments of RAR Scotland, which will feature images and memorabilia from less lauded Rock Against Racism shows held this side of the border.

Born in Pontefract in South Yorkshire in 1947, Shelton originally studied painting at Leeds College of Art before becoming a photographer and graphic designer. In 1972, Shelton moved to Australia, where he worked as a photojournalist and began to show his work. When he arrived back in England in 1976, he fell in with RAR almost immediately.

“I met Red, who'd written a letter to NME after the Eric Clapton thing, and it got this incredible response,” Shelton remembers, “and that was how the whole thing started. I got involved and I met the other people running it through Red. There was this wonderful mix of writers, fashion designers, graphic designers, photographers and musicians. It was a real melting pot of creativity, so it certainly wasn't a drudge. It was fun. We'd have been going to all these gigs by Steel Pulse anyway. Music was a really big part of our lives.

“RAR was very much a DIY operation. We had an office, but really there was no hierarchy as such. Temporary Hoarding was there to tell you how to do things, and if you agreed with anti-racism and cultural warfare if you like, you could put on a badge, put on a gig and just do it. That was the magic of it. It wasn't organised nearly as much as you might think. In that five years between 1976 and 1981, no-one ever sat down and planned anything. We didn't know how long it would go on for. At that time we were far too involved in everything that was going on.”

While RAR defined its time, within a few years the organisation came to a natural close.

“I remember Jerry Dammers saying to me that we'd kind of taken over,” says Shelton. “Multi-racial bands had become the norm, so there maybe wasn't as much need for Rock Against Racism as there once had been. Also, we were exhausted. By 1981 we all had kids, and touring round the country with bands was much more difficult than it had been. The idea of Rock Against Racism had caught the imagination with Two Tone, and we didn't need it anymore.”

While Rock Against Racism was revived as Love Music Hate Racism in 2002, it has never quite hit the zeitgeist in the way RAR did.

“You can't just take ideas from a particular time and try and repeat it,” says Shelton. “There was a genuine grassroots thing going on in the 1970s, and things have changed in a way that I don't think things can happen like that again.”

Shelton admits, however, that “In some ways the times we're going through now are very similar to the 1970s. We were going through the first big recession since the war, and James Callaghan who was the Labour Prime Minister was making these stringent cuts, but we were lucky. In punk and reggae we had these two great rebel musics coming out of the 1970s. Up until then, black bands tended to play to black audiences, and it was the same for white bands. I remember going to see a black band in Dalston and being one of only two white people there.

“It was a time as well when there were only two black footballers playing professionally in Britain, which is unthinkable now, but the act of putting black and white musicians on the same stage, the theatrical symbolism of that, was a political act in itself. You didn't need slogans. And when Steel Pulse came on and did their song Ku Klux Klan, while wearing KKK outfits, it was jaw-dropping.”

Almost forty years on, the times may be different, but Shelton's exhibition is not only a vital document of a critical mass in terms of youth culture, politics and music. It also highlights the need for something similar to Rock Against Racism today.

“We're now living in these crazy times of Brexit, Trump, the NF in France,” Shelton points out. “All that xenophobia has been normalised again, so we still have to fight. It's not as easy to fight now as it was in what were phenomenally rebellious times, but recently looking at the anti Trump marches, it's been mind-blowing. Looking at the placards as well, it's not all SWP anymore

“The spontaneous response to Trump has been tremendous. To see the number of people on the street was amazing. It came when it was least expected, and that's when things change.”

Rock Against Racism – Photographs by Syd Shelton, Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow, February 11th-April 9th. Presented in Partnership with Autograph ABP.

Fragments of RAR Scotland, Trongate 103, February 11th-March 26th.

A series of talks and presentations on Scotland's role in Rock Against Racism will take place on Saturday April 1st, 2-5pm.

www.streetlevelphotoworks.org


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